Is the manual transmission — the tormentor of generations of driver’s ed students — going the way of the buggy whip, the eight-track, the Hummer? That sounds like heresy to driving purists like me, who have always assumed that automatics are for wimps, for people who couldn’t tell a clutch pedal from a daisy petal.
Yet here I am, flying at 140 mph down the banked straightaway at Pocono Speedway in the new BMW M3. This 400-horsepower beauty of a sports sedan happens to be equipped with BMW’s latest high-tech, no-clutch-pedal 7-speed automated-manual transmission — basically a manual gearbox that can shift by itself.
A right-hand turn approaches, and it’s time to stand on the brakes. But instead of mashing the clutch, yanking the stick and blipping the gas with the same foot that’s squeezing the brake — the old “heel and toe” downshift maneuver — I simply flick a little metal paddle attached to the steering column. Both hands stay put on the steering wheel, making it easier to stay on path.
With no clutch pedal to push, my left foot sits there, as unoccupied as a teenager on summer vacation. The BMW even blips its own throttle automatically, danke schoen, making sure the dolt behind the wheel doesn’t screw it up. I arrive back in the pits, and the guilty thought flashes like a checkered flag: What’s the point of a stick, if I can have a self-shifting transmission this good?
Let’s be clear: I’ve been a stick-shift disciple for nearly 30 years. In fact, I’ve never owned an automatic transmission car in my life. But these new gearboxes are just so versatile, so easy — swift, precise, convenient – that I’m considering a date with the dark side. As with similar systems, BMW’s M DCT with Drivelogic offers the best of both worlds: Sit back, relax, drive it like any conventional automatic. But when the curvy road beckons you can shift manually, even selecting settings that boost the intensity of gear changes until you’re in Speed Racer territory.
Manually shifted transmissions are certainly an endangered species. Back in 1980, more than 35 percent of all cars were sold with a stick. Because they cost less and boosted fuel mileage, manuals were more popular when gas prices went up or the economy went down, according to Mike Omotoso, powertrain analyst for J.D. Power and Associates.
Then the SUV appeared, which often came automatic-only. By 2005 only 6 percent of all buyers bothered with a stick. Skyrocketing fuel prices and more choices in small cars brought a mild uptick to 7.7 percent last year, but the trend is clear.
Porsche is one carmaker that has kept the faith. The sports car-centric brand sells a higher percentage of sticks than any other, from 60 to 65 percent on all its sports cars. Yet even Porsche officials say that automated gearboxes are a key to maintaining the brand’s appeal among new generations. “So many young people never learn how to drive a stick, unless a parent makes a point of teaching them,” said spokesman Tony Fouladpour.
As such, the German automaker expects its new PDK dual-clutch automatic to be the company's most popular automatic ever. "That's the progression even pure sports cars have taken," says Porsche spokesman Dave Engelman. As a result, Porsche anticipates that 70 to 80 percent of 911 owners will opt for the auto box, especially in the early going.
These systems are dramatically defying the old arguments for a manual transmission. For instance, it's widely believed that manuals are more fuel-efficient than automatics. Sorry, that's no longer true. The latest Porsche is one of several cars that's more economical with the automatic: 19/27 mpg in city/highway driving, compared to 18/25 mpg with the stick.
Another myth is that manuals accelerate faster. Wrong again. The Porsche and other models are faster with computer-controlled trannies. These automatics shift so quickly that no human being, not even the world's best drivers in Formula 1, can match their abilities.
Lapping the 911 Carrera and Carrera S at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah, I get my own high-speed introduction to the system's no-excuses performance. And as I segue from the track to a relaxed run to Park City, I realize the 911, which has always been one of the world's most versatile sports cars, is even more of a dual-threat machine. Porsche spokesman Bernd Harling took pains to distinguish the new breed of automatics from the "geriatric support systems" of old.
"They're faster, they make you a better driver, yet fuel consumption goes down," he said. The latter is no small matter, with automakers warily eyeing a federal mandate that will require cars and trucks to average 35 mpg by 2020.
It's the same story with the venerable Chevy Corvette. As its automatic transmissions become better and faster, more customers take the plunge. Two of every three Corvette coupe buyers choose the six-speed paddle-shifted automatic. For the convertible, 75 percent choose the clutch-free version.
Harlan Charles, Corvette product manager, notes that the ultra-high-performance Z06 and ZR1 models don’t offer an automatic at all. And the ‘Vette purist still demands a stick. “For the Corvette, there will always be sufficient demand, so the manual is here to stay,” Charles said.
One remaining hang-up is cost. Audi’s S Tronic (formerly called DGS), the pioneering dual-clutch system that’s now shared with VW models, adds more than $2,000 to the price. Porsche’s PDK will add an eye-popping $4,080. Yet some serious performance cars, including the Nissan GT-R and the $1.3 million Bugatti Veyron, are automated trannies or nothing. Among Ferraris and Lamborghinis I’ve driven lately, finding a stick shift is like finding an honest banker on Wall Street.
Honestly, I still find joy in self-shifting. One of my biggest kicks recently was testing the Koenigsegg CCX — an insanely rare, 806-horsepower, $1.1 million Swedish supercar. I jumped in and discovered a classic aluminum manual shifter, just waiting to grab my hand and go out to play.
Perhaps the only argument left for manuals that holds any water: A stick is simply more fun. It makes you feel like the pilot, in control instead of along for the ride. I’ll agree with the purists that a stick is more “involving.”
"It's not all about lap times," said Timo Resch, Porsche's North American product planner. "At least for now, some customers still want to use their left foot and shift."
Yet when technology and traditionalism fight, we know what usually wins. I’m sure twisting a crank to start your car felt pretty involving. I remember what panic stops in the rain felt like before the advent of anti-lock brakes. Those are feelings I can do without. And the older I get, the less patience I have for driving a manual in heavy rush-hour traffic — the constant shifting, the two-step polka on the pedals.
Sure, learning to drive a stick was a rite of passage, handed down for generations. Mastering a manual said not only that you knew your way around a car, but that you were becoming a man. But 20 years from now, young drivers may wonder what the fuss was about. Like kids who’ve never heard of the Beatles, they’ll give us a pitying look when we start going on about the days when “real” cars had three foot-pedals and something called a “shift knob.”
A Michigan native raised and forged in Detroit and a former auto critic at the Detroit Free Press, Lawrence Ulrich now lives in Brooklyn, New York. His reviews and features appear regularly in The New York Times, Robb Report, Popular Science and Travel + Leisure Golf.
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