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Automatic vs Manual: what should the enthusiast choose?

As automatics, DSGs and CVTs get smarter is there still a place for the manual gearbox in sportscars? We grabbed two WRXs, one manual and the other with a CVT, to find out.

WHILE MOST OF THE world and car makers is fast moving towards automatic transmissions being the be-all of changing gears in cars, sportscar owners still, at least on forums, love being able to change gear themselves.

Back in the old days, there was no argument; automatics were painfully slow to accelerate and change gears, often offering only three ratios to the equivalent manual’s four or five which made much better use of the often only meagre power available.

Since the good old days of column shifts, technology has marched on, and nowadays on purely rational grounds, the debate is settled. Automatics are easier to drive, quicker and more fuel efficient than manuals. They are even safer as they can be more automated;  Mercedes-Benz’ latest auto-park system even shifts to reverse and forwards for you.

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About the only advantage for manuals is price, as we still pay around $2000 for an automatic although even that advantage is steadily narrowing.  Nevertheless, these days, the automatic rules the car market and to argue otherwise is like saying film cameras are better than digital, or vinyl is better than MP3s.

But when it comes to sportscars, it’s a case of the heart ruling over the head, and most sportscar owners still lust after manuals.  Yet there are increasing numbers of drivers who prefer or accept autos, braving the scorn and mockery of the manual lovers. The cause is helped by ever-improving automatic transmissions, the best of which are better than the manuals if you want a quick, easy lap time.

Continuously Variable Transmissions Explained

Now, you’ve heard from Editor Bober, who has deemed the CVT-toting Subaru WRX superior to the manual version, and from me who has firmly stated the exact opposite.  So we have a tie.

To settle the argument (for the moment at least) we let a variety of keen, sports-minded drivers loose in the two cars.  Here’s their opinions on the matter, and the two WRXs:

Alex:
Background
Been into cars for decades, currently owns a 1986 Porsche 911 which sees regular trackdays, used to race karts.

What do you look for in a sportscar?
An emotional connection.  The way it looks, feels, sounds, handles.

Autos or manuals for a sportscar?
Manuals.  There’s no way autos are as engaging, and that’s what it’s all about.

What do you think of the 2015 WRX?
I like the performance, the handling, and the way it was firm but comfortable.  Lots of power, fun to drive. But it doesn’t have a lot of character of its own, the inside looks like any other Japanese car.  The outside is kind of distinctive and I like it. The manual WRX is more engaging, more fun, although in terms of driveability there’s not a great deal of difference.

Kaye
Background
Has owned a variety of manual cars, and right now has a pristine 1999 V5 WRX STi and a 1991 MR2. Previously owned a 2011 WRX, just sold a 2002 WRX Sti and is presently eyeing off a 2008 BMW M3

What do you look for in a sportscar?
Fun to drive, exciting to look at; a car you’d enjoy for a thrill.

Autos or manuals for a sportscar?
Manual – because that’s all I know and, from my recent auto testing, I still need/enjoy being involved in the driving experience, even if it may mean the odd embarrassing gear change.

What do you think of the 2015 WRX?
Better to drive and more interesting than my 2011 WRX for sure, but not as good as my 1999; not as exciting. The styling is good, but a bit sedate for my liking. Seats are better than the 2011, but the 2011 easily wins the exhaust rumble comparison.

WRX vs WRX

Mike
Background
Interested in cars but no real history in ownership or competition.

What do you look for in a sportscar?
Nimble and responsive, playful and enjoyable to drive. I like overstated flair, but I don’t need something that’s grossly overpowered and wants to throw me off the road. Nothing I have to fight with.

Autos or manuals for a sportscar?
It has to be manual for me.  When you’re going to drive it it’s going to be when you’re able to focus on what you’re doing, you’re going to want to be engaged and involved, and the automatic just takes that away from you.

What do you think of the WRX?
It’s definitely got some get up and go. Could double as a family car, feels refined; a little bit of luxury. It’s both a playful car, and a family car.  But in the manual WRX I felt turbo lag that I didn’t like, and the gearstick in the manual had lots of travel in the shift (or throw).

David
Background
Owned lots of sportscars, spent time at trackdays, certified Porsche enthusiast.

Which do you prefer – auto or manual, and why?
A manual as there is more driver involvement, although the Porsche PDK gearbox could tempt me.

What do you think of the WRX?
Liked the steering, driving position and traction.  Didn’t like – the instruments were hard to read and the fuel economy thing was annoying. Lack of head room [he’s 6ft 2in] and the brakes didn’t inspire any confidence.  The CVT WRX was not as dire as I was expecting though, but I prefer the manual’s driver involvement.

Stephen
Background
Owns several vehicles including 4WDs and two sportscars; regularly competes in hill climbs, used to race motorcycles.

What do you look for in a sportscar?
I want something that’s involving.  I don’t mean that you have to control everything; it’s about feeling like you’re a part of the vehicle. An alternative is to have a sportscar which is just shatteringly fast and you enjoy the sheer speed. But you can’t use those on the road. There’s no must-haves for me other than enjoyment.

Autos or manuals for a sportscar?
It’s not the amount of manual control, it’s the feeling of what you can control.  For the WRX, I prefer the CVT, it’s the faster car, and you can keep the engine where it needs to be; it’s lower stress.

What do you think of the WRX?
Both of the WRXs failed to grab me. I’ve driven them before, and these are by far the most developed, but I think they’ve lost the raw edge. But they’re fast.  Neither has particularly good steering. There is enormous grip, but you can’t really feel it, you just have to accept it is there. I like the punch out of corners, you can turn in with a fair bit of lock and nail it, they come out hard. The cars feel strong, you never feel like you’ll break it. The seats are good, but I don’t like the fussiness of the wheel and the instruments are try-too-hard.
There’s a lack of character, doesn’t feel like a WRX. A WRX should be ready to bite you on the bum, a little bit more raucous.  The engine note is a bit subdued. The CVT is an “it can do anything” car. It will go fast, is lower stress, and really the manual version I found a bit ordinary. The CVT is more fun in these cars… because you can keep the engine where it needs to be.

WRX vs WRX

Kristian
Background
Ex-rally driver to Australian champs level, owned a 1996 WRX used for trackdays and competitor, now a suspension development engineer.

What do you look for in a sportscar?
You have to be engaged in the car. I enjoy mechanical rawness, you don’t want to be isolated from what’s going on.

Autos or manuals for a sportscar?
An auto lends itself to a lazy drive, whereas a sportscar by definition is an active drive.

What do you think of the 2015 WRX?
It still contains many of the traits from the 1996 model, but is more refined. It’s a very attractive looking vehicle. On the negatives, there’s not a great deal that offends me – it’s actually a really nice experience, I really enjoyed it.  But If I was to unfairly compare it to a European car some of the build quality and trim would be down-spec, but you wouldn’t want it to be over-priced or weighted down because of that. I think I’m confused by the car [CVT WRX ] – it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a sportscar or a family car. But the manual is definitely a sportscar. You may as well buy a Liberty as the CVT WRX.

Juliette
Background
Japanese car enthusiast in general, owned lots of cars from Skylines to Cubes; regularly seen on racetracks and at grassroots motorsports events in her beloved BRZ.

What is important to you in a sports car?
A sports car needs to engage the driver, to make them look for any excuse to drive the car. There should be immediacy in its response to your inputs. It shouldn’t feel like just a means of transport and it should get envious looks from the person driving the whitegoods next to you. It doesn’t need to be practical, it’s designed for you the driver (and maybe a front seat passenger) to enjoy. The seating position should be low and the seats should hug you in place. A sports car should transform from daily driver to track weapon without any effort.

Which do you prefer – auto or manual, and why?
Auto, I’m not a confident manual driver and have only owned one manual car. I have not driven the manual WRX to compare.

What do you think of the WRX?
I like the looks, the practicality and the engine is smooth and plenty powerful enough. But I don’t consider the new WRX CVT to be a sports car. The CVT in combination with the laggy turbo make it a slug off the line and the CVT would be a pain if you took it to a track. It would have been a better car with a traditional automatic transmission. The brakes require far too much effort to perform an emergency stop [she couldn’t brake hard enough to activate the ABS, which takes a lot of effort]. You sit very high in the car, as you would in a large family sedan. The seats are flat and don’t offer much support. I also didn’t find them particularly comfortable for an average trip in the car.  The car in a word – unremarkable. Would I buy one? No.

 

Tim
Background
Long time car enthusiast, owns a racecar, car club president, current owner of a GT86 that has seen a lot of action.

What is important to you in a sports car?
The feeling of being connected to the car and road, most importantly the feeling of it being a fun car to drive.

Which do you prefer – auto or manual, and why?
Manual as I it makes me feel like I am connected to the car, have more control over it.

What do you think of the WRX?
TURBO! Comparing it purely to the 86 having the extra power was nice. Electric seats – Creature comforts / gadgets rate very highly to me. Space – Far more practical than an 86, can fit people other than amputees and newborns in the back, and more boot space. The shifter felt very notchy and disconnected. Seats didn’t feel as comfortable or as supportive as the 86 seats.

WRX Vs WRX – Which one wins?

As you can see, our test drivers were enthusiasts and all looked for a sporting connection with the WRXs. Mostly, they found it with the manual, and it wasn’t just the act of manual shifting for its own sake. I think it was that the CVT auto simply didn’t have quite the direct connection from throttle to car, and merely going quickly is not what it’s about for these drivers. If it was, the CVT would rule. Nor was it a question of outright speed, as the CVT is probably quicker in the real world even if the 0-100 time is slightly slower than the manual.

WRX vs WRX

So what can we conclude? I think you could say that automatic sportscars are like tobogganing on a snow slope, you’d think that was huge fun until you learned skiing or snowboarding which requires more skill and effort, but the payoff is there at the end.  Some say that manuals are dead because racecars are now automatics, but that’s confusing a racecar with a sportscar – a racecar is built to go as quickly as possible, a sportscar is built to have fun and the two goals are not necessarily the same.

But having given the matter a lot of thought, and listened to numerous people air their views there’s a few themes to consider:

Involvement – the most used word in the quotations above. Clearly, the extra work you have to do with a manual over an automatic involves you more, and as the shifting is difficult to perfect it is rewarding when you get it right. But that involvement doesn’t need to come from a manual. It could perhaps come from handling, sound, steering… the drivers looked at the whole package not just the gearshift, and in the case of the WRXs the CVT offered little to do, hence the preference was for the manual. But there would be one group of drivers who’d disagree…

Novices – if you’re new to any complex, high-risk activity then you’ll find there’s a lot of skill needed, lots to learn, be that scuba diving, dancing, motorcycling or parachuting. If you can, at least initially, reduce the skills needed that’s welcome because it allows an easier entry, so you can spend more time enjoying the activity than learning the activity. This works too with sportscars. It is, unquestionably, easier to drive an auto at speed so that’s what newcomers do, so they have more time left to enjoy the activity.

Responsiveness – a big part of the thrill of a sportscar is the feeling of control, and that must include an immediate and direct link between throttle and car response.  Manuals tend to have that direct link, whereas autos tend not to. This is very true of the two WRXs, where all the drivers remarked that the CVT felt less connected than the manual – your right foot moves, and it’s not as pleasingly immediate as in the manual, even in S# mode in which the CVT transmission is locked out to replicate conventional gearbox. Why’s that important? Because the more direct the connection, the greater the thrill of control.  It also makes  advanced car control easier, for example initiating a drift with a jab of throttle, lifting off suddenly to induce oversteer, slightly adjusting mid-corner radius by feathering the throttle.  This isn’t about gearchanges, it’s the view that you’d take the manual even if the course to drive involved no gearchanges at all.

Speed – here, an argument for the auto. Some cars are just too fast to be manuals.  The Ferrari F458, for example, is just one seamless rush of power, and another example is the Audi RS6/7 with eight speeds, the gearchanges come up almost too fast to be fun.  A manual here would destroy the whole experience of never-ending acceleration, and you’d enjoy it less. But you know what?  I just made the Novice argument – “too fast to be a manual” when F1 cars used to be manual. The thing is, speed is like a drug. What initially seems exhilarating becomes normal, and then you need more and more to get the same thrill. I remember when a 0-100 time of nine-seconds was a big deal, and now 0-100 in five seconds doesn’t impress me and I feel well able to handle such a car.  But the Ferrari… I don’t have the experience to push a car of that performance to the limit on the track, so the auto felt fine for me as I didn’t have enough capacity left over to think about the gearshift, and you couldn’t argue with the immediacy of control either, another big factor.

Car specific – what we’ve done here is base the opinions around the WRXs. But there are many other cars; had we done the same test with say a manual and automatic Porsche Boxster then I’d bet more of the drivers would have preferred the automatic, or at least been not as negative because the Porsche auto ‘box is renowned as being one of the best in the business. And if we had a Jaguar F-Type R on hand then I am certain nobody would have complained of lack of response, noise or involvement even if some would still have pined for a manual.

What you know – nobody misses what they’ve never experienced. Kids today will never be given a compilation tape as a gift, and someday nobody will care about printed books. For many people, a paper newspaper over a coffee is a time-honoured ritual, but not for anyone under 50. In the same way, eventually manuals will disappear and the new generation of drivers will never miss what they never knew.

WRX vs WRX

PRACTICAL MOTORING SAYS: If you want a ‘normal’ car then the auto is going to be your default choice unless you’re really pushed for cash. If you want a sportscar, and you want one because you enjoy the challenge of driving as opposed to say loving the looks, then you need to at least consider a manual. This is because the thrill and satisfaction of a perfectly executed up or downshift can never, ever, be equalled by any automatic and using paddleshifts is no comparison because that takes no skill.  Yet like any skill, the reward is proportional to the difficulty and smooth, well-timed sportscar gearshifts take practice and effort which not all wish to master, particularly on the downshifts.

So if you’d just prefer a simpler drive with less effort then the better automatics can most certainly deliver more than enough fun for many drivers.  You’re also likely to go quicker on trackdays, and make fewer mistakes.

Ultimately, the transmission is just one part of the overall sportscar experience.  Base your buying decisions on the car as a complete package of looks, sound, driving enjoyment and whatever else is important, to you, and don’t let anyone tell you it should have a specific type of gearchange.

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Fast automatic or slow manual? No wrong answers, sports cars are not about numbers.

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a motoring journalist, offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks, and that's when he isn't racing his Nissan Pulsar. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com or follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RobertPepperJourno/ or buy his new ebook!