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Manual Transmissions Are Inferior In Every Way, But That's Fine


Manual Transmissions Are Inferior In Every Way, But That's Fine

Sometimes it isn't always about speed and efficiency - sometimes its about the joy of driving in itself.

Seven speeds, eight speeds, nine speeds, ten speeds - perhaps even more. If you haven't caught on yet, we're referring to the number of forward gear ratios that modern automatic transmissions have, in the name of performance and efficiency. It's staggering to think that just a decade ago, a six-speed automatic transmission was considered a luxury, and now almost every BMW model comes with no less than eight speeds.

And that's not the only way transmissions have evolved. Even the kinds of transmissions you get these days have greatly diversified to include dual-clutch transmissions and continuously-variable transmissions. Each kind of transmission has its strengths and drawbacks, and from a technical standpoint, the manual transmission seems to be stuck very much in the past.

The largest leap in the development of manual transmissions for road cars is the inclusion of a seventh forward gear, and even then it is only available for some Porsche 911s and some Corvettes. Fundamentally the manual transmission has not changed in operation or design since the introduction of synchromeshes that helped you shift more smoothly. 

A couple of decades ago you could say that a manual transmission was more efficient than an automatic transmission, but only because back then automatic transmissions saw more parasitic losses and had less forward gears available which made the engine strain a little more. As we stated in the opening of this piece, automatic transmissions can already outgun manuals, and fast-acting lock up clutches provide reduced parasitic losses and provide sharper response in automatic transmissions.

You can't even say that manual transmissions are more effective around a race track either, because modern racecars all use a sequential-type transmission that doesn't require a clutch. On the more consumer end of things, dual-clutch transmissions and automatic transmissions are proven to be quicker in all metrics, including lap times.

So why do companies still offer it, and why are manual transmissions regarded as the choice for purists in the automotive sphere? A lot of it has to do with the feeling of control, and a manual transmission puts the driver completely in control of how the car puts power to the wheels. No matter how complex or quick an automatic or dual-clutch transmission is, the driver is still not entirely in control.

Is it a matter of ego then? Perhaps a little, but there are some interesting tricks you can do with a manual that you can't really do with anything that's automated. Clutch control lets you use a bit of engine braking to help slow a car down and preserve the brakes when you're really at it on the track, and being able to modulate the clutch lets you control power delivery during a launch and even mid corner if you're dealing with something a little more old school.

But above all that, there's just a simple sense of satisfaction when you manage to get a shift right. Even years after you first learn how to drive a manual, a perfect gear shift - devoid of jerking or roughness - is a moment of bliss. Whether it's getting the shift right after you hit peak power, or a series of quick blips to downshift through the gears - the shift is a very important part of the driving experience.

Manual transmissions are a dying breed, but it's good to see that some companies still make the effort to offer these archaic options. What used to be standard has become optional and a rarity on top of that. Electric cars are a threat to manual transmissions as well, seeing as they don't need a transmission at all really. Let's hope that we can continue to see manual transmissions for at least the lifespan of the internal combustion engine. 

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