A Dying Breed: The Battle Between Manual and Automatic Transmissions

It seems as time moves on that more and more people choose cars based on the latest technology rather than how it drives.  It used to be that cars only came with a manual transmission and that was it. As things changed and technology became more in demand, shifting became a ‘thing of the past.’ Why is that? For so many years cars were made for not only transportation purposes but also for the fun of driving.  Now the newest and best technology makes the ride smoother, easier, quieter and less involved.  But why is this an improvement you may ask?  I happen to think it’s a step in the opposite direction.

As we moved from older technologies to newer manual transmissions there has obviously been much improvement. Transmissions started out that way simply because clutches and gear sets were the only way engineers could select gear ratios then. It took almost a half century of automotive development to come up with a practical gearbox that would shift itself. Now, with technology and improved manual transmissions, I believe that stick shifts are not only fun to drive, but are safer.  My dad always says to me, “In a stick you drive the car, but in an automatic the car drives you.”  I think this is a great way to look at it.  In my experience, having attended a large number of driving and racing schools, I have learned that with a manual transmission you can make the car do almost anything you want (within reason) including avoiding accidents.  Think about it this way: if you are driving a car wouldn’t you want to be in control?  My view on the safety aspect of manual transmissions is that if you lose control of the car you have a couple of options: put the car in neutral, push in the clutch, or use the emergency break.  But of course there are always two sides to every argument.

Automatics are of course ‘easier’ to drive because with one less pedal to operate, you can concentrate more on steering the wheel.  To some, the ease of not shifting may seem to be more relaxing and less distracting. To others, not shifting means being less engaged in the task of driving. Still, not everyone is coordinated enough to operate a clutch. Fortunately, technology has solution to make clutchless transmissions more engaging to drive. Many true automatics now can be shifted on demand, either with the gear lever or with increasingly popular steering column mounted paddle shifters.

Paddle shift cars are a step toward manual gearboxes because the use of the paddles makes the driver feel more involved when driving on the street. On the track, there is no ignoring the technological advancements made with paddle shift cars and racing. With the possible exception of NASCAR and drag racing, nearly all race cars now have some form of paddle shifting. 

My most recent racing school, up at Laguna Seca, featured a car that blew me away, the latest BMW M3, which was equipped with a paddle shifted automatic. This car not only performed amazingly well, but it also sounded like nothing else on the road.

You still may be saying ‘but paddle shift isn’t the only fun automatic transmission, what about twin clutch gearboxes that can shift themselves or be paddle selected?’ The dual clutch transmission, like the Volkswagen group’s DSG, is another impressive technological advancement. For track purposes it works beautifully. Not only does it let you concentrate more on racing, but the twin clutch transmission shifts faster than any human could and it even blips the throttle for you for a smooth (and awesome sounding) shift.  For the street, though, twin clutch transmissions have been known to not be as smooth, especially in heavy traffic. Ford has experienced some consumer pushback on the hard shifts of the new Fiesta’s PowerShift twin clutch unit.

So really technology and just old school fun are forever feuding. There will always be tension between engaged driving and ease of use. Manual transmissions, though, run in my blood.  I can’t imagine not driving a stick, but for those who want the ease of an automatic, paddle shift is the way to go.

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One Response to A Dying Breed: The Battle Between Manual and Automatic Transmissions

  1. Nice work as usual Toni,

    I agree with you on the manual gear box and clutch. In a paddle smg, picking the gear either up or down is quicker of course, but here is a lot more control in precisely engaging the downshifts with a clutch pedal, and How do you down shift from 5th to 3rd in a sequential paddle? Hold both paddles then flip one? Anyway if you could do it, . . . The good ole’ H pattern with manual clutch has the edge. And the up shifts are not necessarily faster: http://vimeo.com/38073463 Sounds like it works well enough. good ole easy to repair and lighter – The standard transmission.

    Of course the video gen of “drivers” have to argue the facts – It’s only human nature to defend the “way ya grow up”. The law of self preservation dictates that one should not readily contradict one’s own ways.

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