Plenty of manufacturers talk about moving upmarket, but few realise it's more about engineering quality than stitching and leather
Matt Prior
21 August 2015

Warning: techy, slightly geeky column approaching, about the quality of manual gearshifts.

Yes, 500 words on them – considerably more than most commentators would persevere with but, believe me, far less time and effort than transmission engineers, managers and marketers spend trying to make the way you pull from third to fourth gear feel ‘premium’ or ‘sporty’.

Can a gearshift feel premium? It can, and it matters, because there are lots of car companies who’d like to move upmarket. It’s the only way they can think of to make money.

Some realise they won’t achieve it by simply throwing into a cabin a bit more leather here and a bit more real metal (instead of plastic metal) there. Some have tried that and then wondered why, despite using pretty much the same materials at the same cost as an established premium – read 
‘big German’ – rival, customers 
sit inside their cars and don’t quite buy into it.

I think it’s because people have an innate ability to detect quality, whether they realise it or not. They see that, yes, they’re sitting in a cabin where the leather looks convincingly like dead cow, but they notice the clutch has a weird action and the steering column adjuster flops about. They recognise, too, that the gearshift feels the same as the one from that car they hired on Mykonos four years ago.

A premium feel, then, is more than just about surfaces and equipment; it’s about engineering and quality, too.

When it comes to gearshifts, Mazda gets this. A few months ago, when I first drove the new MX-5, the car’s engineers showed me reams of graphs and diagrams concerning its gearshift. What makes it good is not just the length of the throw, or the length of the gearlever, or the overall weight of the shift, they said. It’s the way that, once you’ve got most of the way into a gear slot, the gearlever overcomes an over-centre resistance and then pulls itself home. You do part of the work and, at a certain point, you could let go of the lever and it would 
do the rest itself.

That’s how it feels premium, or maybe even sporty. It helps you to drive it. As a driver, you might not get the ‘why’; you just feel like the car is helping you. You initiate the change, but thanks to some clever springing, it sucks the gearstick home, willing you along, on your side.

There are cars – sports cars, even – that don’t do that. You have to pull the lever all the way home and, whether you realise it or not, the shift makes it feel like the car’s working against you. That one little detail can make a car less rewarding.

Multiply that feature by about 100 other different driving characteristics and you can see that the road to quality is long.

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Comments
8

21 August 2015
This 'premium' label is becoming meaningless as it is adopted by every manufacturer as a marketing tool. Its origin is this: some manufacturers spent more on engineering and developing their cars, and as a result were able to charge a premium for them. Car enthusiasts should seek out such cars, whether labelled premium or not. The new MX-5 seems great value, given its quality.

21 August 2015
I'm currently driving around in a sub £10,000 budget hatchback where the doors shut nicely, the seats are comfortable, the gearshift works smoothly and precisely, and where the ride is absorbent and well damped. Far too many "premium" models in my experience get the appropriate upmarket trim and equipment, but fail to get the fundamentals right.

21 August 2015
Ford of the 70s/80s were masters of the good gear shift on their rear drive cars. Short, precise, positive, well weighted, nice sound. A standard setter, which drew positive comment in road tests. I missed that when I moved to a front-driver with its more remote linkage mechanism.

21 August 2015
And I mean that as a compliment! Saab always did things a bit differently and won many fans because of their approach - Mazda seem to be echoing this, prioritising good, and sometimes left field engineering and allowing that to building their brand, which in my eyes at least, is working. Things like the quality of the gearshift are so important to how a car feels - one of the best I've driven was the 5 speed unit in the original Accord iCTDI - wonderfully smooth with a short, light and positive throw. The later 6 speed was a bit of a let down after that.

21 August 2015
In a world that increasingly lets its cars shift themselves the feel of a clutch and gear shift are low on the totem pole of "premium." Ferrari and Lamborghini do not even offer a true manual any more. What does matter is the overall tactile quality of what the owner is touching. That could mean the fear lever on one of the few manual shifts available but, more importantly, it means door pulls, steering wheels, HVAC/radio controls, et cetera. Additionally, auto mags tell owners that Brand X feels like a premium car should so buyers will believe that is the standard and any deviation, in their minds, must mean a loss of quality. This is why Audi is doing great guns; not from stunning design or superlative driving but because everyone bangs on about their interiors ad nauseum. My experience has taught me if the interior is the best thing someone can say about their car then it isn't worth my money in buying one.

30 August 2015
Regardless of if it's the manual or Twin clutch, it's the way it works and feels that tells you if it's premium or not. There are many manuals and twin clutch out there but only a few have done it right. Corvette uses an automatic developed for both Corvette Z06 and GM trucks. Yes they work it to fit Z06 but it's never going to offer what a twin clutch offers, no matter how fast it shifts. Cadillac has en engine in ATS that won't match the Germans in smoothness and power delivery characteristics. And a premium cabin more suited for the American taste. And decade after decade they wonder why Cadillac can't beat the Germans. If you mention points like these most people feel offended and get defensive and deny they exist or matter. But premium definitely IS about good engineering.

Dan

11 September 2015
It's marketing crap, meaning a company can charge more than something is worth. Nothing more.

11 September 2015
It's marketing crap, meaning a company can charge more than something is worth. Nothing more.

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