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.