Looking at the overall sales figues since 2004, the popularity of the manual gearbox has dropped slightly, true, but nowhere near at the rate that you might think. In 2004, 17.6 per cent of the 2.55 million new cars sold had an automatic gearbox, which means a rise in popularity of just 7.6 per cent during the past decade. Which is hardly what you’d call a fatality for the manual gearbox, even if a mere seven per cent of new cars sold in the US this year had a stick shift.
Even so, manufacturers such as Ferrari and Jaguar realised long ago that developing high-end sporting cars with manual gearboxes is pointless, because their customers are no longer interested in buying them. But it’s the increasing popularity of flappy-paddle gearboxes among more humble cars, such as next year’s new Vauxhall Corsa – to be offered with the option of a dual-clutch auto – that is arguably more indicative of the direction in which the overall market is heading. Which poses one or two intriguing new questions.
What happens, for example, if you take your driving test in a car with a dual-clutch gearbox and then buy a secondhand car that’s manual? Would you be allowed to drive a manual car, having passed your test in a dual-clutch auto BSM Corsa?
And why is it that the dual-clutch auto in particular – expensive to engineer and traditionally heavier than its manual equivalent – has become the transmission of choice of late, especially among cars aimed squarely at the enthusiast?
So here we ask several key engineers from some of the more high-profile sports car companies why, and indeed if, they believe that the manual gearbox became a thing of the past in 2013.
Director of product development at Aston Martin Ian Minards explains why the new V12 Vantage S – one of the rawest, manliest sports cars that money could buy at one time – swapped from manual to paddle shift this year.
“The V12 Vantage S uses the new iteration of our automated manual transmission, Sportshift III, for very good reason,” he says. “Aside from the considerable weight saving – it’s 20kg lighter than an equivalent manual – this gearbox not only broadens the appeal of Vantage S in markets where there is little or no appetite for a manual, but it also delivers the kind of motorsport-derived performance that is simply unachievable with a conventional stick shift.
"That said, I’d never say ‘never’ when it comes to the retention of a manual transmission in an Aston Martin. We currently feature a manual gearbox in the V8 Vantage, of course, and I think it’s a little early to pronounce the manual gearbox dead – in our line-up, at least.”
Fair enough, but what about AMG? There hasn’t ever been a manual gearbox offered in one of these, but this year the first AMG hot hatch went on sale in the form of the A45, but without the option of a manual transmission. Why not?
Head of AMG Tobias Moers explains: “I’m a bit of a traditionalist at heart and can understand why people wish the involvement of a manual gearbox, but the automatic gearboxes give us so many more options technically. They can cope with the increasing power and torque demands we put on them and, on the rational side, they’re more efficient than manuals. The paddles are also more practical when you’re really pushing and the system is more relaxing to use when you aren’t. There are just fewer compromises.”
So how about Renault’s explanation as to why there is no longer a version of the Renaultsport Clio – perhaps the most engaging hot hatchback there ever was – with a manual gearbox?
“Because the trend in customer demand is moving more and more towards dual-clutch transmission, and this trend mirrors that seen in the high-end sports car market,” says Christophe Besseau, project director for Renault Sport Technologies. “More than 50 per cent of rival performance cars are available in dual-clutch form. EDC gearboxes are more efficient than manual gearboxes, especially in terms of gearchange speed and economy.
"The EDC ’box that we have developed includes the option of fully manual changes. In Race mode, the gearbox is totally manual, operated by either the paddles or the gearlever. Shifting gears at less than 150 milliseconds, it will not change up at the red line, nor will it kick down, yet it is much more efficient than a manual.”
Probably the most controversial ditching of the manual gearbox this year occurred at Porsche, whose new 911 GT3 (and Turbo) went exclusively PDK (the firm’s own dual-clutch automatic), having been one of the last bastions of old-school driver appeal in its three previous iterations. Porsche’s head of GT car development, Andreas Preuninger, acknowledges that it was a contentious move, but a necessary one. He says: “The outcries of many fans still resound: ‘A GT3 without a manual gearbox is not a GT3 any more.’ And I can only repeat: ‘Yes, it is.’
“The ‘simply add lightness’ philosophy to make a car faster, especially the past three GT3 generations, just does not apply any more. Nowadays, systems that add extra speed over-compensate their extra weight very clearly. Purism and performance are no longer inextricably linked. Indeed, they turn more and more into opposites today.
“At Porsche, we all love to shift gears manually, but what we love even more is being the fastest. Therefore, PDK is a must. The system may weigh 20kg more than the seven-speed manual transmission of the current 991 models [the latest generation of the 911], but more than 20kg is saved in the weight of the engine compared with its predecessor [the 997-generation GT3] and that made the decision even easier. The car had to have PDK.
“The Doppelkupplungsgetriebe [PDK]of a GT3 must also be fun, involve the driver and add a sporty and emotional value. And it must shift gears faster than any other. And it does. With traction upshifts under full load in up to 100 milliseconds, it holds the technological ‘pole position’ for fast gearchanges. The feeling for the driver is closer to a sequential racing gearbox than to an automated manual.
“The operating policy is also different for the GT3 [compared with other PDKs]. If the driver opts for the purely manual mode, there is no electronic intervention whatsoever; the car revs into the limiter and accepts downshift commands even in the highest speed ranges.
“The benefits of PDK do not end with longitudinal dynamics, however. The clutch-operating hydraulic pump inside the PDK provides an indispensable precondition for an improvement in another GT3 core competency: lateral dynamics. It permits the use of an electronically controlled, fully variable rear axle lock, a so-called ‘E-diff’, which would have been almost impossible to integrate into the car with a traditional manual gearbox.
“It’s also vital to note that we built a 991 GT3 with a manual gearbox and ran it during development alongside prototypes with the PDK – and in all cases, both emotionally and empirically, the PDK came out on top. And that’s why we built the car this way.”
And what of Ferrari, which pioneered the steering wheel-mounted flappy-paddle gearbox for road cars with the F355 F1 Berlinetta, way back in 1997?
In the early days, Ferrari’s F1 system was great in theory but didn’t work too brilliantly in practice. Shifts were slow (350 milliseconds versus just 60 milliseconds in the 430 Scuderia), the cars had a habit of eating clutches during hill starts and, in the UK in particular, the initial take-up wasn’t widespread. To begin with, less than 20 per cent of Ferrari’s UK customers went for the F1 system.
But over the years Ferrari – and most other manufacturers, too – have made huge strides with the software and hardware of their paddle-shift gearboxes. By the time the 430 Scuderia was launched in 2007 – with F1 paddle shift only – the tide had well and truly turned.
By then, Maranello’s gearbox software had been integrated with the car’s traction control and E-diff systems, giving adjustable levels of performance and driver control, all operated via the now famous wheel-mounted manettino switch. And that’s when customer demand for manual transmissions pretty much went out the window at Ferrari. The last new model that Ferrari offered with a traditional manual gearbox as an option was the 2008 California – and just two of those found homes.
Maranello’s chief of engineering, Roberto Fedeli, explains why the attitudes of his customers have altered so dramatically in recent years.
“Our demanding clientele unhesitatingly adopted the paddle-shift gearbox and understood early on that this was the way forward – to a totally immersive driving experience, with no downsides regarding performance or driving thrills. With the advent of the dual-clutch gearbox, introduced on the 2008 Ferrari California, gearchanges became instantaneous and seamless. This provided the sensation of being at the wheel of a really sporty car by providing positive longitudinal acceleration during upshifts, rather than the torque drop-off and subsequent re-acceleration that has characterised manual gearboxes.
“But the even greater integration with all the vehicle’s other electronic control systems – E-diff, F1-Trac, high-performance ABS, magnetorheological suspension – allowed by the DCT has given us even more advantages, not least the ability to build a car that is supremely agile yet controllable on the limit, as well as being more frugal.
“Our latest development of DCT software introduced on the new 458 Speciale has allowed us to further improve performance in downshifts, matching engine revs to road speed 44 per cent more quickly [than in the regular 458 Italia]. This has allowed us to create the purest driving emotion possible. And that’s something our clients are not willing to compromise on.”
So in a nutshell, the reasons why the manual gearbox didn’t so much die as become a lot less popular among the top-end sports car makers in 2013 are: they are nowhere near as fast or efficient as dual-clutch automatics; they are no longer as light as they once were relative to a DSG; they are much more difficult to integrate with all the other electronic systems of a sports car nowadays (e-diffs, ESP, traction control and so on) and, most significant of all, few customers in the high-end sports car market seem to want them any more – although the jury is still out when it comes to more affordable enthusiast cars, such as the latest Renault Clio RS 200 Turbo, which may or may not suffer for being EDC-only in the long run.
As for that thorny question about the driving test, the answer is a big, fat ‘no’ – you can’t drive a manual if you pass your test using an automatic of any sort. And that comes direct from the experts at the Institute of Advanced Motorists.
All of which means that, like it or not, it’s paddles from here on in among the world’s fastest, most desirable cars – or at least it will be until someone invents a still faster, more efficient, even better method of changing gear.