Can a Manual Gearbox Keep Up with the Performance of Modern Cars?


Ever since the dawn of motorsports, manual gearboxes were the go-to choice of automotive enthusiasts. What type of transmission connects your engine to your wheels is often used as a tell-tale sign of what kind of driver you really are.

At least that’s how some people see it. The whole ‘automatic vs manual’ debate has been raging for decades at this point. However, the question is whether or not a manual gearbox is capable of keeping up with the performance of modern engines or is it actually a bottleneck?

The Ultimate Driving Experience

What is driving all about? For many, this question is answered by the famous video of Ayrton Senna. We aren’t talking about this legend’s official career highlights either. The clip we’re referring to doesn’t have the legendary Senna kitted out in his fire retardant coveralls, racing helmet and shoes. No, in the clip we’re talking about, Senna is wearing white socks and moccasins.

Picture this. It’s 1989, Japan. Honda, led by Masahito Nakano’s team, has just released the first-gen NSX. Everyone’s ecstatic as Honda lines up a few of these cars at Suzuka racing track. Ayrton Senna was one of the first drivers to take this now legendary car for a spin. The resulting video that has forever captured this moment is probably the best exhibit of what the ultimate driving experience is all about.

As Senna throws the NSX around the track, we’re treated with a cam pointed straight at his feet. He was a master driver but his heel-toe technique was something else. Not only that, but he was able to push the car to its very limits without a single fancy electronic clutch system there to hinder or help him along the way.

His traction control? His own two feet.

That ultimate freedom and pure mechanical connection with the car has made manual gearboxes the choice of any car enthusiast up until recently.

The Evolution of Automatic Transmission Boxes

One of the main arguments against automatic transmission back in the day was the lack of speed. These were often criticized as being too slow to shift gears, not to mention the fact that kickdown wasn’t always as immediate as most would like.

Sure, automatics were always easier to drive and made much more practical sense in day to day traffic. However, driving an older automatic often felt like dealing with a middleman who wasn’t quite speaking your language. There was a lot of that lag which was anywhere from annoying to infuriating depending on how bad you wanted it to get into the next gear.

Here’s the thing, though. We have come a long way since then. Modern automatics are neither slow nor boring to drive anymore. Most importantly, we now have paddle shifters!

Paddle Shifters – the Stick Shift Replacement We Need

With the advent of modern dual-clutch automatics, manual gearboxes began to lose their standing in the car enthusiast community. Many still like to drive a standard stick shift, but very few will attempt to make a case that driving a manual makes you faster.

That is simply no longer the case in many instances.

Paddle shifters first appeared in F1 cars back in the late 1980s. At the time, this technology was as futuristic as it could get all things considered. It took it a few decades to reach the commercial sector of the automotive industry, but here we are.

It is worth pointing out that not every commercial dual-clutch gearbox comes with paddle shifters today. On the contrary, this feature is often reserved for performance cars or cars that have some racing heritage.

Your average dual-clutch gearbox works by having one clutch control gears 1, 3, 5, 7 while the other controls gears 2, 4, 6 and maybe 8 if it’s available. Having two clutches allows the gearbox to achieve very fast shift times as gears are easier to spool up.

Another very important thing is happening when you shift gears using a modern dual-clutch gearbox with paddle shifters. You are being assisted by the computer which helps calculate optimal shift ranges for every gear and more.

But wait, how does a fully automatic gearbox full of digital crutches appeal to the hardcore driving enthusiast when everything is so detached?

This is where things get interesting.

Top Performance VS Driving Experience

It’s true that modern automatics are governed by highly complex electronic systems that help the driver with shifting, but with a good reason. What we need to figure out is what is more important – achieving the top performance or enjoying a traditional driving experience?

Modern automatics can be surgically accurate, offering immediate gear changes on command. That means that your track times won’t be held back by your drivetrain, but rather your own driving skills.

If your goal is to achieve the best possible performance during a track day, there is no better tool you can use than a fine-tuned, fast automatic.

The Case for Manuals

With all that in mind, there are still several benefits to classic manual gearboxes, which is why you can still spec some new cars with stick shifts in 2019. At the core of any car with a manual gearbox lies the need to walk that H pattern.

We can discuss this at length, go into various debates about efficiency and whatnot, but the fact of the matter is that stick shifts are fun.

Clutch in, shift gear, clutch out, gas. This simple process can make even the crappiest manual car fun to drive.

One more advantage of stick shift gearboxes is their robust design. With  few exceptions (looking at you Opel, with your M32 garbage box and mushy bearings), manual gearboxes are more robust and will take more abuse on average.

Does that mean that you can go and slam gears around or pop the clutch on every traffic light? Probably not, but you won’t get hit with a tranny rebuild bill that will force you to sell your firstborn.

The main benefit in our opinion is the fact that you can be Ayrton Senna for a day, should you want to. You can don those white socks, put on those moccasins and take your car for a heel-toe adventure around the track.

That is something no automatic will ever be able to bring to drivers.

And while cars like the NSX will no longer come in manual, there are still strong representatives of this ideology on the market.

Alfa Romeo has pretty much turned the car enthusiast work upside down with the announcement of a Giulia Quadrifoglio with a manual gearbox. We are talking about a car that is on par with the M5 and one that has held the Nürburgring production sedan record for two years from 2016 to 2018.

Truth be told, the 6-speed manual they offer with Giulia Quadrifoglio is not faster than the ZF automatic this car also comes with. The question is whether or not that matters to you?

The Future

One of the saddest facts about manual gearboxes has nothing to do with them slowly being phased out by fast automatics. Rather, it’s the fact that gearboxes, in general, will soon be a relic of times long gone.

Electric cars are no longer something you’d see a sketch off in some weird concept showcase. Instead, the roads are full of Model S Teslas with their absolutely ludicrous 0-60 times, no pun intended. Electric cars need no gearboxes. Therefore, we are at the sunset of H pattern manuals. Maybe it’s time to move on.

Summary

At the end of the day, it is quite apparent that manual gearboxes simply can’t keep up with automatics when it comes to pure, raw performance. Modern DCTs will eat up just about any manual for breakfast, spit it out and not even notice.

The only real reason to get a manual today is for the experience itself. There’s something absolutely intimate in working the clutch, shifting gears, rev-matching, heel-toeing and so on. You’re telling the car what to do in a very specific way, all while getting immediate, organic feedback from the machine.

We are reaching a period in automotive development where we’ll no longer burn dinosaur carcasses to move forward. We might as well enjoy our old school stick shifts while we still can. Considering the pace at which electric cars are being developed and improved, we’re almost at a point where ICE cars will be reserved for track days only.

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