This morning started out like usual for me, getting a cup of coffee and popping on the computer to see what new and exciting things were happening in the automotive world. During my many stops along the long highway of interwebs, I stumbled upon a Car and Driver article about the new F80 M3. In this article, the author talks about the DCT gearbox, and while it makes the car very, very fast, he’d prefer a row-your-own style gearbox. This isn’t a new concept, most car enthusiasts prefer manual transmissions and aren’t shy about voicing it.
Now, of course everything comes down to preference. There’s never any debate as to whether or not the modern automatic transmission is the better performer. It is. Fact. But still, many enthusiasts prefer to drive a manual transmission, knowing it is the slower car, because they get satisfaction out of interacting with the car that little bit more. It’s akin to fans of Horology, who’d rather own a mechanical watch over a battery-powered one; less accurate timekeeping but more enjoyable experience to own.
I’m somewhere in the middle on manual transmissions. On one hand, I enjoy them greatly. They offer a level of interaction between man and machine that an automatic simply cannot achieve, despite car makers’ best efforts. However, everyday driving for many people, myself included, consists of mind-numbing traffic or boring highway stints, both of which deny the enjoyment of a manual. What difference does it make, which transmission is in the car, when you’re driving at a steady speed in sixth gear for an hour? Modern automatics, and especially DCTs, offer the luxury of easy motoring with 80% of the fun a manual would give when using paddles.
I really think it comes down to the car. Certain cars simply need a manual transmission, regardless of surrounding traffic. Cars like the Ford Mustang, Subaru BRZ and Mazda MX-5 are better to drive with a 6-Speed manual. Their old-school style of performance means that a manual will offer the best driving experience. Some of the cars that used to fit that bill are the BMW M3, Volkswagen GTI and Porsche 911. All of these cars were manual only to the people that knew any better. However, now it seems as if the tables have turned for those cars and I think it’s because the cars simply have become so damn good.
Yes, manual transmissions will always be more “fun”, but when every other part of the car is so efficient and so high-tech, a manual can feel like the weakest link. With modern, turbocharged engines and different programmable modes for every part of the car, a manual seems a bit behind the times. It’d be like buying a brand new computer, loaded to the gills with the hottest tech and hooking it up to a CRT monitor. When driving a modern high-performance car, like say a BMW M5, with a manual, it can make you feel like you’re slowing the car down because you simply cannot shift fast as fast as what the car can handle.
When driving an old-school sports car, a manual is the only way to go. You can develop a rhythm with the car and you become in sync with the car. But with hyper-fast, extremely powerful cars, when driving a manual, it feels like the transmission is bottlenecking its performance. If modern automatics and DCTs can open up a vehicles full performance potential, then why wouldn’t that be the best option? Manuals still do have a space in the automotive world, in cars that prioritize fun and simplicity over performance. But these modern performance cars need modern transmissions to unlock their full potential.