Is the Manual Transmission Still Relevant?

The manual transmission argument

The 2014 Porsche 911 GT3 simply isn't available with a manual transmission. For any buyers considering the automatic vs. manual debate, it's a foregone conclusion. If you want the car, you're getting the 7-speed Porsche Doppelkupplung (PDK) along with it. And while that has some purists are all kinds of upset, the downsides are quite limited.

Photo Credit Porsche.com

Photo Credit Porsche.com

What's the difference in transmissions?

Most modern production cars have one of three types of transmissions. The synchromesh transmission is what most likely comes to mind when you think "manual." That's your traditional H-shaped shifter pattern. The sequential gearbox is also a manual transmission, but functions differently. In a sequential gearbox you cannot skip gears. From third, you can only go up or down one gear, but with this sacrifice comes faster, more consistent, and error-free shifts. Finally, the traditional automatic does all the shifting for you. Where does the PDK fall? Welcome to the fourth category, the double-clutch automatic.

Photo Credit CarandDriver.com

Photo Credit CarandDriver.com

Sales trends for Automatics vs. Manuals

Photo Credit Dodge

Photo Credit Dodge

In the U.S. in 2012, 6.5% of cars were sold with manual tranmissions. That spike in sales was a bit of an anomaly, sales of manuals in the three years preceding 2012 hovered at 4%. Things are different "across the pond," In the U.K., some 75% of new cars purchased before October 1 in 2014 were manuals. Why would anyone choose a manual?

The Benefits

Traditional wisdom says manuals are cheaper to buy, operate, repair, and offer better fuel economy than their automatic counterparts. There's also the fun factor. A manual connects your foot immediately to the engine, press the gas and you know what you'll get every time. But the double clutch system Porsche developed shifts faster, offers better fuel efficiency, and offers superior driving performance. And fast is fun. Which was Nelson Ireson's point. Once the technology evolved to offer superior performance, what's the point in wanting the old version?

A demonstration of driving skill?

Take the Nissan 370's SynchroRev Match as an example. It takes serious skill to brake, blip the throttle, steer, and shift at once. The foot part of that skill is called heel-and-toeing, by the way. But by adding sensors on the pedals and some brains into the ECU, the 370 Z does it for you every time, absolutely perfectly. And the more the car does, the less the driver needs to do. Eventually, heel-and-toeing may be as lost as the art of orienteering in a GPS-equipped world.

Nostalgia Drives a Manual

Photo Credit Jegs.com

Photo Credit Jegs.com

Let's call it what it is, because we feel it too. There's a direct connection with a car that you feel when shifting gears, hopping pedals, making those perfectly timed transitions. At some level that feel great, and there's pride in having that skill. It's one part nostalgia, one part sensory experience. But if an automatic double clutch is faster, more fuel efficient, and easier to operate, are we putting pride before the finish line? Manuals will always be cheaper, and they make a great theft-deterrent. But part of the reason they're great is the same thing that makes driving a classic car so fun. That's nostalgia.

See Inside the Porsche Doppelkupplung

For a look inside the 2009 version of the PDK, check out Jay Leno's test drive. He breaks one down, takes it apart, and then takes a still assembled version for a test drive. Now, he's "not sure why anyone would but a car of that caliber and not want a manual gearbox." But he also wears head to toe denim, so we'll take that opinion with a grain of salt.

What about you? Share your opinion in the comments below.

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