Yes, the days of the manual gearbox are slowly, inexorably coming to an end. Analysts in the know suggest that in 20 years or less, cars with stick shifts will be dodos, extinct for all intents and purposes.
We’re not there quite yet, though. Car companies that value a hard-won image of sportiness and performance are not willing to let the bell toll for the manual transmission. Honda, for instance, has for the last couple of years been doing a national tour, wrangling car journos to test tracks for a day of do-it-yourself shifting. Honda is proud of its racing heritage, and even goes so far as to sell an Accord mid-size sedan with a six-speed manual gearbox. Shocking. And of course the Civic compact has a manual, as does the Fit subcompact. All good shifters, too.
Mazda is another good example of a car company with a taste for the manual. But then, Mazda is consumed by a quest to preserve and protect its “zoom-zoom” image and that obsession is reflected in the gearboxes offered in the latest 2014 Mazda3. Only last year, Mazda went so far as to completely reinvent the six-speed manual for the Mazda3 compact. It’s a gem, too – short, silky throws that go click-click-click with almost no effort at all.
Mazda engineer Dave Coleman points out that car companies typically re-engineer a manual tranny every 15-20 years. When the chance to reinvent a gearbox comes along, it’s a monumental occasion and the gearheads within car companies fight hard to create a manual for a decade or two. Even at that, the 2014 Mazda3 with the all-new six-speed automatic gets slightly better fuel economy in the city than the same car with the same engine and the six-speed manual – 6.7 litres/100 km for the autobox in the city, 6.8 for the manual. Indeed, many automatics get better fuel economy than a manual in exactly the same car.
The fact is, only about 5 per cent of the new cars sold in Canada come with a manual gearbox. Almost no one wants to shift for themselves any longer. That’s somewhat understandable for drivers who fight commuter traffic on a daily basis. Who wants to ride the clutch when you can fill stop-and-go time talking on your hands-free headset?
If you’re a buyer who wants a manual, your choices are thinning. About two-thirds of the cars sold in Canada today come only with an automatic; there is no manual option. You might think that at least all the sports cars sold today give you the choice of manual or automatic. Not so. The 2014 Jaguar F-Type, for instance, comes only with an automatic gearbox – though it does have paddle shifters that put the driver in control, much like a Formula One race driver.
For a baby boomer like me, the slow, steady demise of the manual has been painful and sad to watch. I learned to drive on my dad’s old Ford Falcon, the one he drove to work grinding out shifts via a three-on-the-tree manual. That was not a pretty car and it certainly was not an interesting or entertaining one, either. But it was cheap and still has a soft spot in my heart as a touchstone of my youth.
None of the cars I test with manual transmissions today are as primitive and uninspired as that old 1961 Falcon. Today, the remaining cars with manuals are really quite entertaining. The Audi $66,7000 TT RS coupe I drove last year has a six-speed with a shifter that falls delightfully to hand. Fiat’s 500 Sport Turbo ($20,995) is sold only with a surprisingly user-friendly five-speed manual gearbox. Five-speed? That may seem a bit primitive in a world of six-speeds, but in such a small and light car, it works very well. The 135-horsepower turbo four-cylinder certainly helps.
One of scariest cars you can get with a manual – and I mean scary in a good way – is the Ford Shelby GT500 ($61,999). The Tremec six-speed that comes standard is mated to a fire-breathing, 5.8-litre, supercharged V-8. One feels closer and more in control of the 662 horses thanks to this particular gearbox – one that feels strong but is completely accessible for anyone who knows how to shift for themselves. The shifts are that clean and the clutch is that light.
Another manual delight is the Volkswagen Golf R ($39,675). This all-wheel-drive German hatchback is sold only with a six-speed manual and it works seamlessly mated to a 256-hp, direct-injection, turbo four that absolutely sings when pushed hard. This gearbox slides from gear to gear to gear with almost no effort at all. This engine-gearbox pairing is just about ideal.
None of these cars would be such a treat if the only tranny choice were an automatic of some sort. Even the delightful dual-clutch manual automatics from the VW Group can’t do quite what a traditional manual six-speed does in terms of engaging the driver so completely. If the day comes when the only option among these and others is an automatic of some sort, who will buy?
All this was part of a conversation I had with my 19-year-old son Sam, who like most of the sons and daughters of boomers first learned to drive in a car with an automatic transmission. I gave him his first manual lesson in a Honda Fit and he then refined his skills in his pal Jake’s Jeep Wrangler Sport – at 2 a.m. in an empty, snowy parking lot at Whistler Village in British Columbia. Obviously, his manual education was for a long time in need of refinement.
And so when Honda called to invite me to one of those manual driving days, I asked to bring Sam along. They said yes. It was a brilliant day for the kid. He refined his clutching skills and pretty much mastered the balanced dance of throttle input and clutch engagement. Now he may one day be a candidate to buy one of car with a manual shifter before they disappear, as so many swamis of the automotive marketplace believe.