Is this the end of the manual gearbox?
Not long ago you only had two options for changing gear in a car - manual or automatic. The former was for ‘normal’ cars and sports cars, the latter for barges and the like. But with technological developments the line has got very blurred and it seems to be bringing forth something that frightens the hell out of me as a petrolhead – the death of the manual gearbox.
We’re already at the stage where you can no longer buy a manual Ferrari – imagine telling that to some tifosi 30 years ago and they’d spit their espresso in your face. The replacement for the Lamborghini Gallardo will undoubtedly be offered without a shiny stick sprouting from the centre console and Aston Martin will most likely ditch the option of human shifting on the next gen of cars. The only real saving grace out there for those of us who prefer to shift gears ourselves is Porsche.
But why are companies getting rid of the manual gearbox? Surely it’s part of sports car lore? Well in the end, it very sadly all boils down to saving some polar bears. Yep, that’s right – the eco mentalists are in charge of our sports car gear shifting. All car companies, including those that make our favourite super cars are being forced to lower their CO2 emissions and in order to get a 700bhp Aventador to sneak through the emissions ratings at under 400g/km Lamborghini, like all the others, fettle the gearbox and engine parameters so that at the specific rev and speed range used to determine the emissions, the 6.5 litre behemoth’s powerplant is operating at the absolute optimum settings. This is very hard to do with a manual gearbox as you can’t control it nearly as much.
The other reason is a technical one – in the Ferrari 458 all the systems; engine, suspension, gearbox, exhaust etc are all linked together by the multiple ECUs. This means you can set the car to Race and the suspension firms up, the gearshifts are lightning quick, the exhaust valves stay open and everything works as one. If you shifted gears manually this would be very hard to integrate. But do we really need all of this?
Porsche seem to be the only sports car maker willing to stick with the manual gearbox, developing a 7-spd manual box for the new 911. The next GT3 is set to offer a PDK option though which will enrage the purists. Not me though, I have no problem with companies offering the dual-clutch gearboxes and the like, just give us the option of shifting gears ourselves if we want to. Sadly it seems unlikely that the next generation of 911 will have a manual gearbox at all as Porsche are forced to lower their emissions even further.
As an example of my point, a while ago I drove my favourite section of blacktop back-to-back in a Ferrari 458 and a Porsche 997 GT3 RS. I went a good 15-20mph faster in the 458 and it was amazing, exhilarating even but I got to the end and pondered "How much of that was actually me?”
In the RS I got out at the end and my pulse was racing, I was sweating and the adrenaline was pumping through me. What I knew though, was that it was all me. Every perfectly timed downshift blipping the throttle, even every fluffed shift, gave me a thrill, a sense of achievement.
As an engineer, I am incredibly impressed by the dual clutch boxes, and indeed if I were to have a car as a daily driver it would be some kind of auto. But when I want to drive, really get the most driving pleasure I can out of a few miles in a sports car, I want to control it myself.
I love the tactile feeling of snicking that lever from gear to gear, timing the changes, heel and toeing to perfectly get that downshift on the way into a corner. Does it make me a Luddite? Absolutely not – I welcome these dual clutch ‘boxes for the technical marvel that they are and I think they have a place. But for me, in my sports car, I’ll take a manual shifter please. As a chap on Pistonheads so aptly put it recently…
“Paddles are for canoes”
Of course, the manual gearbox will be a common sight on ‘normal’ cars for some time yet. Manual gearboxes are simply much cheaper to produce at the moment. But all it takes is a push from some manufacturers to go auto across the range and the volumes will start to increase. When that happens they price of these dual-clutch and auto ‘boxes will drop and you can expect to see them in everything from a base Fiesta to a £1m hypercar as standard.
What this could also mean, is that manual sports cars could become a rarity in the seconds hand market. Buying a Ferrari 575M with a manual gearbox now could see it rise in value purely because so few manuals were sold, while holding onto a manual shifting Porsche 911 GT3 is a pretty safe bet too.
We just hope that there will always be smaller manufacturers too, like Noble who don’t even offer a non-manual version of their 650 bhp M600. We can always rely on them to satisfy our need to shift gears ourselves.