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Are Manual Transmissions Done, And Should We Care?

Posted in 24 Hours of LeMons, auto industry, Cadillac, Car Buying, Car Tech, Cars, driving, Featured, Ferrari, Promoted by Kurt Ernst | January 4th, 2011 | 17 Responses |
2010 Ferrari 458 Italia

A Ferrari 458 Italia; something is missing...

I was following an interesting comment thread on another board recently, and it played out like this: Commenter A, who claims to have extensive tuning experience and claims to drive a Jeep Cherokee SRT-8, made the bold statement that manual transmissions are obsolete. He further went on to say that enthusiasts should get over this and embrace the automatic, which is superior to the manual in every way. As you’d guess, a thorough beat-down of the original commenter ensued. From the language and grammar used, most commenters were posting from their mom’s basement, and had experience driving manual transmissions on Need For Speed and Grand Turismo only. That’s how things generally go on internet message boards, especially poorly moderated ones.

The thread got me thinking about the fate of the manual transmission. Car & Driver already has their “Save the Manuals” campaign, which appears to have support from dinosaurs like me who grew up with manual gearboxes. There is a certain joy in the ability to master a shift pattern, and the ability to smoothly match engine revs on a well-executed downshift. Rowing up or down through a gearbox gives you a level of interaction with a car that no computer-controlled, dual-clutch gearbox can ever hope to match. Automatics, in my opinion, should be reserved for commuter cars and trucks, while manual transmissions should be an available option on anything with sporting intentions. I’d even pay more money for a good manual transmission, just like automatic transmissions used to command a premium.

The counter argument is made by manufacturers like Ferrari, who’ve all but eliminated the manual transmission from their product lineup. Even the 458 Italia, arguably the best non-GTO Ferrari ever built, is only available with a slushbox computer controlled, dual clutch automatic gearbox. Ferrari isn’t alone in optimizing performance around an automatic: the fastest way around a racetrack in a Cadillac CTS-V is with the automatic transmission set to sport mode. You cannot beat the lap times in a manual transmission CTS-V, and even shifting the automatic yourself will produce slower lap times. John Heinricy, GM’s uber-performance guru, set his record Nürburgring lap time in an automatic transmission CTS-V set to sport mode. If that doesn’t make a statement, I don’t know what will.

I’ll go out on a limb and guess that the original poster, with the SRT-8 Jeep, never learned to drive a manual. Maybe he never had the opportunity, or maybe he just never bothered to learn. That doesn’t make him any less of an enthusiast, just as my own lack of ability to heel-toe a car doesn’t make me any less passionate about driving them. Sometime in the near future, those of us who grew up driving manual transmissions will be the exception, not the rule. Like it or not, automatic transmissions with dual clutch setups and steering wheel mounted paddle shifters are the way of the future: we can either accept change, or try futilely to stop the encroaching glacier of technology.

Me? I’ll always have something with a manual gearbox, and I’m willing to accept that there are faster ways around a racetrack. Sometimes, the joy is in the driving and not in the lap times.

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17 Responses

  1. Jim says:

    It is obsolete in everyway. They can be more fuel efficient, quicker, more accurate, and apparently cheaper because of economies of scale. No hard evidence, just what patterns I have seen. I normally am one to embrace change. But I will really miss the days of the manual. Already do, it’s so much more boring in my car.

  2. Turbosrt says:

    Benefits
    Manual transmissions generally offer better fuel economy than automatic torque converter transmissions; however the disparity has been somewhat offset with the introduction of locking torque converters on automatic transmissions.[3] Increased fuel economy with a properly operated manual transmission vehicle versus an equivalent automatic transmission vehicle can range from 5% to about 15% depending on driving conditions and style of driving.[4] Manual transmissions do not require active cooling and generally weigh less than comparable automatics.[3] The manual transmission couples the engine to the transmission with a rigid clutch instead of a torque converter which slips by nature. Manual transmissions also lack the parasitic power consumption of the automatic transmission’s hydraulic pump. Additionally, they require less maintenance and are easier to repair due to the fact that they have fewer moving parts and are, mechanically, much simpler than automatic transmissions. When properly operated by an experienced driver, manual transmissions also tend to last longer than automatic transmissions.

    Manual transmissions also generally offer a higher selection of gear ratios. Many vehicles offer a 5-speed or 6-speed manual, whereas the automatic option would typically be a 4-speed. The higher selection of gears allowed for more uses of the engine’s power band, allowing for higher fuel economy and power output. This is generally due to the space available inside of a manual transmission versus an automatic since the latter requires extra components for self-shifting, such as torque converters and pumps. Automatic transmissions are now adding more speeds as the technology matures. ZF currently makes an 8-Speed automatic transmission, which is used on the Rolls Royce Ghost and the Bentley Mulsanne. The automatic transmission in the Nissan 370Z also has 7 speeds.

    Manual transmissions are more efficient than conventional automatics and belt-driven continuously-variable transmissions.[5] The driver has more direct control over the car with a manual than with an automatic, which can be employed by an experienced, knowledgeable driver who knows the correct procedure for executing a driving maneuver, and wants the vehicle to realize his or her intentions exactly and instantly. When starting forward, for example, the driver can control how much torque goes to the tires, which is useful on slippery surfaces such as ice, snow or mud. This can be done with clutch finesse, or by starting in second gear instead of first. An engine coupled with a manual transmission can often be started by the method of push starting. This is particularly useful if the starter is inoperable or defunct or the battery has drained below operable voltage. Likewise, a vehicle with a manual transmission and no clutch/starter interlock switch can be moved, if necessary, by cranking the starter while in gear. This is useful when the vehicle will not start, but must be immediately moved e.g. off the road in the event of a breakdown, if the vehicle has stalled on a railway crossing, or in extreme off-roading cases such as an engine that has stalled in deep water.

    Currently only fully manual transmissions allow the driver to fully exploit the engine power at low to medium engine speeds. This is due to the fact that even automatic transmissions which provide some manual mode (e.g. tiptronic or DSG), use a throttle kickdown switch, which forces a downshift on full throttle and causes the gearbox to ignore a user command to upshift on full throttle. This is especially notable on uphill roads, where cars with automatic transmission need to slow down to avoid downshifts, whereas cars with manual transmission and identical or lower engine power are still able to maintain their speed.

    In contrast to most manual gearboxes, most automatic transmissions have a free-wheel-clutch. This means that the engine does not slow down the car when the driver steps off the throttle, also known as engine braking. This leads to more usage of the brakes in cars with automatic transmissions. (the commodity Nissan’s or Honda’s automatic gearboxes disables the free wheel operation completely if the driver has selected a gear position other than “D” – either “1”, “2”, or “D with overdrive off”. This works by blocking the free-wheel sprag using a multi-disk clutch called the “overrun clutch”)

    Drawbacks
    The smoothness and correct timing of gear shifts are wholly dependent on the driver’s experience and skill. If an inexperienced driver selects the wrong gear by mistake, she/he can do damage to the engine or transmission.

    Attempting to select reverse while the vehicle is moving forward causes severe gear wear (except in transmissions with synchromesh on the reverse gear). Most manual transmissions have a gate that locks out reverse directly from 5th gear however, to help prevent this. In order to engage reverse from 5th, the shift lever has to be moved to the center position between 2nd and 3rd, then back over and into reverse. Many newer six-speed manual transmissions have a collar under the shift knob which must be lifted to engage reverse to also help prevent this.

    Choosing too low of a gear with the car moving at speed can over-rev and damage the engine. There is a learning curve with a manual transmission; the driver must develop a feel for properly engaging the clutch, especially when starting forward on a steep road or when parking on an incline.

    Some automatic transmissions can shift ratios faster than a manual gear change can be accomplished, due to the time required for the average driver to push the clutch pedal to the floor and move the gearstick from one position to another. This is especially true in regards to dual clutch transmissions, which are specialized computer-controlled manual transmissions. Even though some automatic transmissions and semi-automatic transmissions can shift faster, many purists still prefer a regular manual transmission.

    Manual transmissions place a slightly greater workload on the driver in heavy traffic situations, when the driver must often operate the clutch pedal. In comparison, automatic transmissions merely require moving the foot from the accelerator pedal to the brake pedal, and vice versa. Manual transmissions require the driver to remove one hand periodically from the steering wheel while the vehicle is in motion.

  3. Turbosrt says:

    The automatic is a great alternative for people who want to drive fast with no talent required. Im sorry but it breaks my heart that when I go to purchase a car my selection is so limited because we as americans have become so lazy. Everyone else can kill driving enjoyment but please please for the love of god dont stop making manual transmissions.

  4. Kurt Ernst says:

    Jim and TurboSRT – I agree with you, and this Neanderthal will cling to the comfort of a manual transmission as long as I can…

  5. L says:

    I care!

    Even if I could go faster in an automatic, it’s far more fun to drive a manual.

    The control the manual transmission allows a driver over his car makes the vehicle practically an extension of the body, so the more powerful and exciting the car, the more thrilling driving it becomes. Also, the skill required makes rowing the gears so much more fulfilling.

  6. Ron says:

    Thanks, but no thanks.
    I will own at least one manual transmission car as long as I can buy one!
    The manufacturers don’t make it easy either but we’ll continue to support those that do…

  7. Werty says:

    Unless you are racing the car professionally, who care about being slightly faster. How far apart were the times on the “Ring” for the manual vs automatic CTS-V? For 99 percent of the people who buy sports cars it is about fun. Yes I know faster is more fun. But, being the one who is controlling the car is even more fun. I have way more fun driving in a stick-shift car without traction-control, ABS, ESP, or throttle-by-wire. It feels more visceral to me. I’m the one driving the car, not a computer. To be fair there may be cars with those things that I would like. But, they are beyond the vast majority of people’s reach. Ferrari may very well make the greatest automatic of all time. I’ll probably never get a chance to find out. All I know is that every auto I’ve ever driven was less fun than the manual. I feel like I have time to make a sandwich while most auto-sticks try to grab the gear I just told it to.

  8. Mark Smith says:

    A manual is just plain more fun and, even with all of the fancy traction control devices around today, I feel like I have more control. Take starting from a stop on a slick surface. I’ve always felt I had more control in a manual than I do with an Automatic.

    Yes, I grew up driving manuals and all but 2 of the cars I’ve even driven regularly are manuals. I may be a dinosaur, but I’m a happy one!

  9. chuggada says:

    Who cares about the lap times. Theres a road near where I live, two way, one lane on each side and it snakes along a lake and is filled with straights and hills and hairpins, etc…I used to drive it when I had an auto, but after I got my manual…I cant express how many more times the fun was magnified with that gearbox. I’d take physically dropping down to second, letting off of the clutch’s sweet spot and blasting out of a hairpin over a few tenths of a second any day.

  10. guilf1 says:

    umm… ditto.

  11. eddie_357 says:

    adapting 7 speeds on the twin clutch lowers first gear,for rapid acceleration.WOT shifts are obtainable on the twin clutch which are incredible and addictive. what about people who dont want to row the the gears all the time.after they get their paddle shift car they can go to you tube and tag word HEEL and TOE and say wow that looks like a skill i might not be able to develope without alot of practice!

  12. Doug says:

    I would argue that the benefit of manual transmission is in that it requires a greater physical and mental commitment to driving. Physically, it’s the best method to retard texting/phone use while driving b/c of the necessity to commit both hands to the car to drive in traffic or in changing terrain. On the mental side, one has to constantly be thinking ahead regarding traffic/terrain patterns so that one doesn’t get caught out of gear and stall/overrev the car. I don’t have access to the stats, but I would imagine that manual cars are less involved in texting/phone accidents that automatic cars.

  13. Acidtonic says:

    They can pry my manual from my cold dead hands. I will never give up if at all possible. Another thing for me is that I avoid front wheel drive as well.

    I skip entire vehicle lines if they are front wheel drive or lacking in a manual. Before I bought my Evo I was waiting on Ford to produce a full time AWD manual trans turbo Focus or Fiesta. After seeing FWD only I switched to the import arena and decided on an Evo IX over the Subaru STI/ Audi S4/ BMW 335XI. I had a Cobra previously and although it looked and sounded better, the Evo simply destroys it at everything.

    So yeah, I bought my first import despite owning nothing but Fords. I wanted a sports car that could handle the bad weather and snow here without compromising on performance.

    Perhaps I’m just strict in my requirements but roughly to sum it up….

    Stock motor unmodified needs to handle at least 400 horsepower to the ground for 70,000 miles.

    Weight must be under 3400lbs.

    Only full time all wheel drive, or rear wheel drive. Has to have limited slip differential(s).

    Manual transmission required. Period. No caving here.

    0-60 in under 5.5, 1/4th in under 13.75.

    Price under $55,000. Preference to vehicles with potential for high daily driver fuel economy, or bad weather traction/handling.

    So the car I decided upon is a 2006 Evolution IX 5spd. Prior to this car I thought a V8 was the only way to go. Now I’m not going back. Sorry for the long read.

  14. Justin says:

    This strikes me a wholly American thread despite the use of a Ferrari as the justification. An SMG in a Ferrari bears no resemblance to the auto transmission in most American sold cars even those with the fake paddle shifters. I can’t imagine any Cadillac or even any “big three” car with a decent manual- they just don’t like or care about them. BMW, etc are a wholly different story.

    They aren’t as reliable as a manual transmission, nor as efficient and there can’t be a single person on earth who thinks an Automatic is more enjoyable to drive. The only reason automatics are on the road is you don’t have to pay attention while you are using one and most American’s don’t like to pay attention while driving.

  15. Tyler says:

    The first car I had had a slushbox and I hated it, I will never own another automatic ever again. My current car (an 07 civic) has a manual and so does the 94 miata parked next to it. If any car I own has one thing, it will be a manual gearbox.I don’t care about a few tenths quicker to 60, the pure mechanical connection to the car is addicting. Besides, you cant heel toe in a car with a slushbox. I put driving enjoyment first and foremost, everything else comes second.

  16. Brian says:

    If electrics are the cars of the future, then, both the manual and automatic will go the way of the dodo. I’ve owned and driven both, and for the daily commute I’ll take an auto. Put me in a sports car on hilly, twisty road with no traffic and the stick is the hands down winner (provided a surgeon can fix my knee).

  17. Axel says:

    Sporting intentions, my ass. 80% of Corvettes are bought with automatic transmissions. That stat is a few years old, so it’s probably even worse. It’s all part of the pussification of America. LT’s (low testosterones) can’t be bothered to do their own shifting. And the only reason Ferrari has abandoned manual transmissions is LT’s can’t be trusted to do their own shifting.
    Note that motorcycles have not succumbed to automatic tranny madness. It’s no coincidence that Harley-Davidson, who sells more large motorcycles than anyone else, is worried about their aging customer base. It’s all a masculinity issue. Their aging customers still have balls; a lot more so than the younger customers they covet.