Why bother with a manual transmission?

The world once debated whether digital or film cameras were better, but no longer, the question is settled. But what about a car’s transmission?

FEWER AND FEWER vehicles are sold with manual transmissions, and there are many very good reasons why.

The autos are, obviously, easier to drive.  They are now just as fuel-efficient as manuals, if not more so thanks to extra ratios; 7, 8, even 9 speeds compared to the manual’s six, and autos are engineered in concert with efficiently, quick-shifting sophisticated DSG clutches, not to mention infinite-gear CVT systems.

Sportscar autos are now mostly quicker than manuals, certainly easier to drive and more forgiving. If you tow, you’d pick an auto for ease of use and the extra transmission ratios. In the off-road world the auto is acknowledged by all as superior, even the crustiest old diehards.  Servicing costs are about equal, resale will be higher, and interior packaging better without a long wavy gear lever. 

Adaptive autos downshift before you exit a corner and learn your driving style over time, taking input from a wide variety of sensors throughout the car to to optimise gearshift points.  Reliability isn’t really an issue either, and yes you can’t bump-start an auto but that’s a rare job  these days thanks to  electronic battery management.

Autos are more convenient too. Features such as self-parking systems can’t be fitted to manuals. They’re safer, as the computers get to control one more aspect of the car to help avoid or recover from incidents.

There’s perhaps just one logical reason left to buy a manual and that’s initial purchase price, with the gap of $2000+ to an auto never likely to be bridged with any difference in fuel consumption, but that gap is closing month by month.

So why then do I take exception to Editor Isaac Bober’s Subaru WRX review closing statement: “…as good as the WRX is it’s been made better by the new CVT Lineartronic transmission, indeed, we’ll say forget the manual, pay the extra $2k and get the best WRX (read: WRX CVT) ever.”

On a purely logical level, he’s dead right. There’s no doubt the WRX CVT is quicker and easier to drive than the manual, so define “better” from that perspective and nobody can disagree as the facts are plain.

But the WRX is a sportscar, and a sportscar is a car which you drive for fun, enjoyment, pleasure.  And if you think about it, that’s not the same as the pursuit of pure, outright speed or ease of driving, far less least cost.  That is the crux of my argument – from a driving enthusiast perspective the WRX CVT is a worse car than the manual.  It is because an auto transmission means there is less work for the driver to do. The point of a sportscar is rewarding skill, and the less skill required to drive the car, the less the reward and the less the enjoyment.

Let’s say you’re in the CVT WRX, and you’re approach a slow corner from a long straight.  You’ll need to pick your braking point, brake, release the brakes as you turn in and accelerate. This is adrenaline-based fun of the first order, and the pleasure you get is from the sheer excitement of speed, the brush with risky danger, and the visceral satisfaction of having correctly executed a physically and mentally demanding manouvre. On the exit to the next corner you need not worry about the gear change, whether you snatch fourth or stay in third, the car does that for you.

In the manual, all is true as above but there’s an extra frission, an additional challenge – the skill of changing gear, and picking the gear.

With a manual transmission you are set the task of rev-matching as you brake hard using the time-honoured heel-and-toe technique, and on corner exit you have to change gear just before redlline, making the call of whether to use higher or lower gears.  It’s a slower process, far more prone to error, but it demands skill and that means more involvement, more enjoyment, more satisfaction when you get it right – more sportscar and less mere, unemotional, fastcar.  Anything that detracts from the driver’s involvement in the process of driving fast is a backwards step in sportscars, but usually a forwards step for normal cars.  And no, finger-flicking a paddle shift doesn’t demand the same skills as a manual gearchange so it does not deliver the same enjoyment.

One may ask if I also advocate a return to chokes, crankstarts or would prefer to do without power steering.  To ask is to miss the point, but nevertheless to be clear I do not find any enjoyment in the act of operating a choke or crankstart, so happily embrace the modern car which does away with both.   And power steering does not detract from driver involvement but is a welcome convenience, one I wouldn’t be without.

You may also argue that there is sufficient fun left in the drive even with an auto gearbox, and I don’t disagree that autos can be huge fun on a sporty drive.  You can continue this line of argument until the driver need only make an approximation of guidance around a track, and the car will figure the rest out, providing an experience not dissimilar to a rollercoaster.

My point is not that auto sportscars are without merit, it is that the more the driver has to do, the greater the challenge and thus satisfaction. The same is true when driving offroad, or any other situation where the point of driving is not the destination, not the journey, but the sheer enjoyment of mechanical mastery. It’s why people sail boats for pleasure, and don’t just use a motorboat, it’s why gliders still exist in an age of powered aviation.

Ultimately, at the end of a perfect lap a sportscar driver should feel a deep, warm, glow of accomplishment and satisfaction with his or her skill.  Not an amazement at the car’s technology and a sneaking feeling the vehicle did it all, much like synthesized voices singing while the performer lip-syncs and takes a bow of undeserved credit at the end. And that’s why, for me, a manual sportscar will always be better than an automatic, and electronic systems should act more as a safety net than a driver assistance system.


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9 years ago

Good on you Robert. I’m 64, a car enthusiast and I owned more than a dozen new cars so far. ALL of them with manual gear boxes. My current one is the latest Honda Civic hatch with a 6-speed gearbox, MANUAL of course.
It’s common knowledge nowadays that human beings must exercise their physical bodies to stay healthy and live enjoyable longer lives.
It’s also known that people should exercise their brains as well by keeping them as busy as possible to stay alert in every situation and prevent the onset of dementia, Alzheimers and other mental problems.
Driving all my manual cars in a daily basis for nearly five decades has been an extraordinary continuous exercise to my brain which I’ll never give up in exchange for an auto transmission.
Just by operating continuously a manual 6-speed gearbox in coordination with a clutch pedal, and on top of the full time attention required when driving a car, is the best gift I can ever offer my thankful brain every single day.
Automatic transmissions??? As they say they are for a few lazy and dumb people only. All the other clever people, fortunately the great majority, they just don’t realize what they are missing out.

7 years ago
Reply to  Junovidor

“auto transmissions….for a few lazy and dumb people only”….what a stupid, dumb, and puerile statement. For a 64 year old, you have some growing up to do. Both Automatic and Manual have their place, depending on your individual circumstances, as you should know by your age.

Mike Wood
6 years ago
Reply to  Junovidor

I test drove the 2018 manual WRX/STI, and for the first time driving a stick in 30 years, I have to say what an amazing rush!! It was awesome and can’t agree with you more, however auto surely has its place for some if not many. At the end of the day, I’m going back to a manual… Oh yeah!

RV Prado
RV Prado
7 years ago

That some’s it up in a nutshell. Alot of people just don’t get it, why we like manuals so much. Unfortunately im one of the unlucky people were I have to have an auto because the wife refuses to learn an manual and she need’s to be able to drive both our cars it is an auto for me. One day ill have a manuel again the dream is a 95-99 wrx or an 99-01 ss or hsv

7 years ago

Here Here, I could not agree more mate, if you are buying a sports car! you want the ultimate enjoyment, satisfaction, fun, feel and control of the car as you can.! otherwise go buy a camry or family SUV imo.

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper