Spannerhead Dot

Are Cars Outgrowing
Manual Transmissions?

October 10, 2012 by Matt

BMW F10 M5 Interior Inside Cockpit Console 6 Speed Manual Stickshift Transmission

Autoblog seems to think so in their review of the US-only 6-speed manual version of BMW’s latest M5. They write:

While there is nothing physically wrong with the manual box, rowing one’s own gears is based on a technology that peaked in the mid-1990s (think Acura NSX, Mazda MX-5 Miata or Honda S2000), and it really isn’t going to get any better. The automated dual clutch, on the other hand, continues to improve with each generation and subsequent software update.

Simply put, BMW’s F10 M5 was designed with the 7DCT in mind. The automated gearbox is capable of ripping up and down through the gears endlessly before taking the Autobahn home at a sustained 190 mph. In sharp contrast, and whether North American enthusiasts want to admit it or not, the M5’s 6MT is a Frankensteinian adaptation to the platform incapable of handling the same stress as its dual-clutch sibling – that’s a fact.

Much like fly-by-wire aircraft controls replaced manual rod-and-cable linkages once aircraft reached a certain level of size and complexity, many high-performance cars seem to be attaining a point of convergence where engine power and vehicle weight make a manually-operated gearshift impractical, bordering on unusable. Think about it: As horsepower and torque figures continue to skyrocket, greater clamping and shifting forces are necessary to channel that power in order to motivate ever-more-heavy cars, and there’s only so much engineers can do to increase the mechanical advantage so those controls can be operated comfortably by human muscles. To take an extreme example, there’s a reason the Bugatti Veyron, for instance, isn’t offered with a traditional three-pedal manual. So I take Autoblog‘s point, at the same time that I lament the fact that we’ve reached the juncture where such excesses of power and weight are considered essential to success in the marketplace. “Progress,” they say, but is it?

But as depressing as it is to contemplate the obsolescence of manuals among high-end sports sedans, GTs and supercars, I smile when I consider the other end of the automotive spectrum, with new cars like the brilliant Toyota/Scion/Subaru FT-86/FR-S/BRZ triplets. In nearly every essay on the FT-86/FR-S/BRZ, reviewers wax lyrical that its light weight, sparkling road manners and manual transmission in particular rekindle a sort of romantic enthusiasm for the simple pleasures of driving dulled by the brute power and isolation proffered by cars like the new M5. True, they do occupy radically different market segments and cater to customers with different priorities, but a car is a car; both the FT-86/FR-S/BRZ and M5 have four wheels with rubber tires and Otto-cycle reciprocating piston engines mounted up front, and the delight experienced by a driver able to break the back wheels loose slightly—yet completely under control—around a corner is the same whether a car has 200 or 560 hp. So by that metric, among those of us after the pure joy of driving, there seems to be no substitute for a traditional stickshift, even if it is on the way out among the heavy-hitters.

Filed under: BMW, News


  1. John D says:

    It is strange to think that when I was young, being able to drive a stick shift set you apart from the crowd. You were capable of directly controlling the behavior of your vehicle by knowing exactly what gear to be in, how long to hold it, how to rev-match, etc. This skill allowed you to drive and squeeze superior performance out of any given vehicle vs. the automatic version of that vehicle. As much as I hate the thought, that skill is now largely and objectively obsolete. It used to be that those who drove manual transmissions were the real gearheads and performance drivers, respected for their ability to eke out that last drop of performance from their respective vehicle. Now those who drive manual do it mostly for the nostalgic sensation as, objectively, there is no longer any performance benefit to it, and you are actually at a disadvantage to most any knucklehead who bought the flappy-paddle twin-clutch automatic version of the same car. I hate it. Sure it’s technological progress and the end result is that we do go faster, etc, but it is certainly a step back for us as individuals and drivers as it is one less skill that one needs to master to be considered a good driver.

    • Matt says:

      Yep. I really see DCTs getting cheaper and eventually replacing manuals even in low-cost cars, much like fuel injection superseded carbs… That’s what my crystal ball says; take it for what it’s worth. :) We’re a dying breed, my friend—maybe not in the next 10-20 years, but we’ve seen the stickshift’s replacement and it’s coming. Ironic that one of my favorite automakers (Audi) was the one that pioneered it, no?

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