This is a love letter to the manual transmission. Or perhaps its obituary.
I understand the emotion that a stick and clutch engenders. Passionate drivers often feel they’re better connected to a car which can be shifted manually. Others go even further. A fellow once told me, “I’ll let go of my stick when you pry it out of my dead, cold hand.”
I belong in the lovers’ camp: There’s something lyrical about a well-executed shift -- clutch in, shift, clutch out, power on. Forget about simultaneously eating, drinking or texting. This is the art of driving.
Yet I recently sat in Ferrari’s headquarters in Italy and was told, unequivocally, that the new 458 Italia would never see a manual transmission attached to its screaming V-8. The technology was too slow and outdated, the representative said.
That statement was a death rattle -- the skeleton hand gripping the cue-ball knob and shifting into history.
More than 91 percent of 2009 model-year cars sold in the U.S. were automatics, according to data from industry researcher Ward’s Automotive Group. And while usually associated with meeker and weaker vehicles such as compacts and minivans, these days even most supercars use automated systems.
This is partly due to technology which takes the best from both worlds. “Automated manuals” are different from the traditional torque converter found in rental cars. Instead they have one or two clutches located internally.
Drivers are left with only a gas and brake pedal. The transmission can be left in automatic, or gear shifts may be actuated by shifters located behind the steering wheel. Unlike that human-controlled process, single or double-clutch systems change gears in milliseconds, faster than the swipe of a samurai sword.
Of the supercars I’ve driven lately, including the Lamborghini LP 570-4 Superleggera, Lexus LFA, Bentley Continental Supersports and Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, not one is available with a stick.
While these technological marvels will speed to 60 miles per hour more quickly, purists argue that they’re less fun to drive. Maybe. The 7-speed double-clutch on that 458 Italia is brilliant, rivaled only by the spectacular smartness of the 7-speed on the SLS. Hitting 60 mph in 3.2 seconds in the Ferrari, there was no time to mourn -- I could only hang on.
A bit of good news for holdouts. In the last months I’ve also tested new cars with manuals, including a Porsche 911, Suzuki SX4, Shelby GT500, Kia Forte and the BMW 5 Series. Arguably, it made them all more fun on the open road. (Traffic jams are something else entirely.)
“Europeans tend to buy manuals on entry models, while Americans view it as an option for enthusiasts,” said Willem Rombauts, product manager of the new BMW 5 Series.
In North America, 10 percent of those buying the most powerful 550i will opt for the six-speed manual, he said. The rest will match the top-tier technology like optional night vision with an 8-speed auto.
BMW’s corporate little brother, Mini, remains bullish on manuals. According to product manager Vincent Kung, manuals account for 34 percent, the highest rate in the compact and sub-compact segment.
“Manuals lend a special connection to the car, and that’s highly appealing to our customers,” he said. “Looking at the next generation of the Cooper, we’ll continue to see a significant place for the manual.”
Technologies like the double-clutch automated manual also cost more, Kung added. Indeed, manuals have endured because they are inexpensive to make and are highly efficient because they have little internal drag -- the resistances within the engine - - offering good gas mileage.
That’s changing. Some automatics now offer better gas mileage than their manual counterparts. As carmakers look to improve the efficiency of their fleets, that’s big news.
“I think the disparity will continue to grow,” said Craig Renneker, Ford’s chief transmission engineer. “There are many things we can do to improve the efficiency of automatics, but manual transmissions are already close to optimal.”
Renneker said he thinks that the new 2011 5.0-liter V-8 Mustang has one of the best manuals “on earth.” (About half the car’s buyers are expected to go for the six-speed stick.) “But at this point, we don’t know what else to do to improve it,” he said.
Part of the problem is that computer-operated systems can always pick the optimal gear, whereas manual transmissions rely on a human.
“In the Mustang, you can actually go 80 mph in second gear,” Renneker said. “It sounds wonderful and won’t hurt the engine, but it’s not good for fuel economy.”
Renneker and his fellow engineers worry about the fate of the manual transmission. “I love driving them. But one day fuel legislation will be so rigid, we may have to leave it to a computer.”
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com.