Why Can’t You Get Your $300,000 Supercar With a Stick Shift?
In 2012 McLaren put something on the Pebble Beach concours that no one had seen before: the McLaren X-1. Made for a particular “Middle Eastern person of power,” according to a McLaren spokesman, the car came with Citroën-inspired spats over the rear wheels, a nickel-plated air-brake wing, and a unique carbon fiber monocoque like the one found in the blistering fast MP4-12C.
What it didn’t come with was a stick-shift gear box. Mr. Middle East didn’t even ask for one.
The fact is, despite the romantic allure of pulling a stick shift through six or eight gears of raw automotive energy, if you know anything about supercars, you know this one wouldn’t have been as good a car in manual mode.
“These days, people are educated to the fact that it’s faster to drive with paddle shifters or the DSG gearbox, especially people who have been buying sports cars for a long time,” said John Paolo Canton, spokesman for McLaren in North America. (The buyer in question already owned a McLaren F1 and a Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, among other supercars.)
“The quantitative argument for a stick shift is not even a conversation at this point, in terms of the numbers,” Canton said. McLaren has never offered a stick shift in any of its cars since debuting the first road version in 2010. “It’s just so much faster, it’s not even close. It’s more fuel efficient, and it produces fewer emissions.”
What’s more, the way McLaren engineers its cars means that drivers can tailor their ride much more closely with an automatic transmission than with a manual. “When you change the knob, you literally change the way the gearbox works. You can’t do that with a manual transmission,” Canton said.
Which is not to say that if a manual transmission had been requested, McLaren wouldn’t have delivered, but it would take a lot—a lot—of cash to change that.
“If someone did come to us and say, ‘I don’t care what it costs,’ we could look into it for them, but it’s going to be seriously expensive,” Canton said. So far, he added, no one has requested one. “The physical part we can buy, but adapting that into the car, reworking the software, making sure it’ll actually work, you’re talking an absolutely enormous sum of money. That said, we’d certainly research it and implement it if someone is willing to cut a check for it.”
Paddle Shifting Is Faster, More Efficient, More Bespoke
That’s a more generous offer than stick-shift jockeys can hope to get elsewhere. Most places will give you a flat-out no.
“The only people who ask for manual gearboxes are two or three diehard British car journalists,” said Nicola Boari, the head of product marketing at Ferrari. Ferrari stopped selling sticks in 2011. (The last car it delivered with a manual gearbox was a 599 GTB Fiorano, but the last model commercially available with a manual gearbox was the Ferrari California.)
“It’s analogue in a digital world,” agreed Aston Martin communications manager Matthew Clarke, though Aston does make some of its cars with manual options. More on that later.
Bentley last offered a manual R-Type Continental way back in 1952-55—and that was as an option. Lambo stopped making it with the last of the Gallardos. Rolls-Royce never made one in the modern era. Bugatti never did, either. For them, it’s not about the money. Forget the development cost—even if you can afford to buy a $300,000 coupe, you won’t be able to find one with a stick shift because it doesn’t hold up, performance-wise, for these high-power machines. In terms of eliciting the most extreme performance, human beings just can’t compete with the precision of a computer.
“We develop our cars to have class-leading levels of performance, grip, and handling,” Boari said. “For the technological level of integration our cars offer, a manual gearbox would reduce the performance capabilities—which, for Ferrari, is unacceptable.”
There’s a Serious Speed Differential
The difference in time between laps done on a stick shift versus on a paddle shift can be full seconds; over the course of a day, that distance adds up considerably.
This is nothing new. It’s worth remembering that Ferrari was the one that actually invented the F1-style, steering-wheel-mounted paddle shift decades ago. The paddles meant drivers no longer had to take their hands off the steering wheel in order to go faster, which allowed them to concentrate more on driving—and which removed the element of driver error in missing gears when braking and cornering. It made everything in F1 faster and less fatiguing. (The same applies to the production-level whip you take to the track every weekend.)
For modern sports cars, dynamically integrated systems that include ABS, electronic differential, traction control, magnetic suspension damping, slip control, active aerodynamics, and engine and gearbox management interact directly with the paddle shifters. So when you have a massive V10 or V12-engined supercar, the prospect of managing all of that to perfect control and performance requires a computer, to say the least.
“Our cars are about effortless driving, and having a stick shift doesn’t aid that,” said Brett Boydell, Bentley’s head of interior design. He said Bentley customers haven’t even inquired about a stick shift option for decades. “The thinking from a powertrain perspective is that for quite some time Bentley has been focused on performance and luxury. Luxury is being able to keep ahold of the steering wheel, to stay in control. Drivers are better able to do that with an automatic transmission.”
If You Insist on a Manual
If you do find yourself still yearning for the James Dean romance of pressing the clutch, throwing the car forward a gear, and zooming around the bend, you’ll have to look a little down market from your corner Koenigsegg dealer.
In the U.S., BMW offers manual options with its performance-oriented M2 coupe; M3 sedan; M4 coupe and convertible; M6 coupe, convertible, and gran coupe; and several of its lower sedans and coupes. (If you prefer Mercedes-Benz, you’re out of luck in America—none of its impressive performance-tuned AMG line comes in a stick-shift gearbox, and the last stick-shift gearbox it offered at all was in the 2014 SLK 250). Aston offers several of its Vantage V12 and V8s in manual option form. Porsche still offers its iconic 911, among other models, with a stick. Corvette, Camaro, and Jaguar offer some variations on it as well for U.S. buyers, among other less-expensive brands. (Stick shifts remain more available in Europe, so you could always just look there.)
Automakers say that for those less extreme cars, the manual option services a small band of customers who want to access the technical artistry of using a stick-shift transmission. For them, it’s not about track stats. Spokespeople from BMW, MINI, and Aston Martin, for example, also said it “makes business sense” to produce stick shifts, but they declined to say just how lucrative that is in the United States.
“For smaller, two-seater sorts cars, there’s an appetite for it,” said Aston Martin’s Clarke. “It might not be millions a year, but there is a hunger for it.”
But good luck finding a stick anywhere if your tastes run higher. The days of true supercars bearing stick shifts are long gone—and not to return. Would you ever bring the manual back as either a one-off or a production car? I asked Ferrari’s Boari.
His answer says it all: “Categorically, no.”