To say that the performance car landscape has changed is somewhat of an understatement as it seems like out of nowhere the horsepower bar has been raised beyond my wildest dreams and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. Nowadays, you’ve got American family sedans capable of blowing away fancy imports and SUVs with 0-60 times that would make a sports car proud on one end or embarrassed on the other. My weekend toy is an air cooled Porsche 911 Turbo and in the “Stop Light Grand Prix” I proceed with caution as there are now Honda Civics (no offense) that could get to the next light before me with ease thanks in part to performance enhancing engine chips and in some cases they are doing it with stock engines. Engine technology has advanced for the better but with that advancement something else has happened.
Remember when real men drove manuals? If you are younger than twenty-five you are probably lost right now but keep reading, as you are about to be enlightened. I’m talking manually shifting your car’s transmission. This was part art and part science so in other words it required skill and knowledge. You determined what gear you wanted and needed to be in but make a mistake, misjudge your engine speed against how fast the car was moving and that sound you hear is your engine blowing to pieces. Worse case scenario you might also be seconds away from losing complete control of your car. I’m talking totaled!
Along with the recent engine power surge transmissions have been forced to keep pace or negate the progress made by their multi cylinder brethren. Today technology can shift transmissions faster and better than any professional driver and certainly faster than that dude that thinks he’s mastered the art of rowing through the gears. Manual transmissions were used in racing because we could not only shift them faster than automatic transmissions at the time but it allowed us to shift when we deemed necessary based on road conditions or where we wanted to take the car. That is no longer the case.
These newer modern transmissions go by names like dual clutch, F1, SMG (Sequential Manual Gear), PDK (Porsche Doppelkupplung) and a host of others but they’re all basically the same with a common thread. They all have “automatic” modes and there is no longer a third pedal on the floor to the left of the brake pedal. Look down at the driver’s feet and these true racers only have two pedals, gas and brake. Now you can shift like a true racer boy with two paddles or stalks on the steering column or steering wheel. There’s one on the left and one on the right, one for down shifting and one for upshifting. Let your fingers do the talking. Here’s the crazy thing. These fancy automatics have gotten so sophisticated that their computer senses your driving style and shifts based on what it thinks you are going to do and shifts for you. The scary part is a few out there get it right almost every time. Porsche’s PDK is one that comes to mind as I’ve driven two different Porsche 911 generations with it and was impressed. They offer fast gear changing consistently the same way every time with virtually no interruption in the delivery of power to the wheels, which amounts to improved acceleration so I am certain you can figure out what that means. I don’t care how good you are or think you are with a manual but as an engineer once told me, you aren’t smarter than the machine, or are you? While these modern transmission marvels can get through the gears faster do they really work better than human guidance? It depends on your intentions but most allow for human intervention so if you feel the machine is missing a step or two then takeover and use the paddles.
Now the fun can begin, as making use of the paddle shifters is not much different than if you were using that third pedal to change gears with the shifter that sits on the floor. The biggest difference is there is less skill needed to paddle shift and some of these transmissions have a built in safety mode to ensure you don’t blow the transmission or the engine as they automatically shift or revert to automatic mode.
You still need experience to know when you should shift manually with paddles but the art of engaging the clutch is no longer part of the driving experience, which to some is the driving experience. I learned how to drive a manual in college and I remember my older brother always saying until you learn how to drive a “stick” you can’t drive! Part of that learning experience goes beyond knowing how to engage the clutch to shift. It means knowing when to shift to maximize the car’s performance, it means knowing how to engage when you are stopped at a light on the top of a hill in San Francisco with cars waiting behind you not more than a foot away. You engage that clutch wrong and you are rolling backwards. That person behind you won’t be pleased and that scratch or even worse, ding on your rear bumper will not be considered patina. Now it’s snowing out and you don’t have AWD but you’ve got a manual transmission and changing gears too fast in snow will cause your rear wheels to spin too fast and next thing you know you are going sideways. As you can see many of these critical driving decisions are taken away or minimized with the newer automatic performance transmissions. Many would argue for the better but I’d make this comparison. Today you can go to your local supermarket and get a gourmet meal that you place in a microwave for two to five minutes (paddle shift) or you can buy the ingredients for the same meal mix them to your personal likings (manually shift) then cook them on a stove with the process taking thirty to sixty minutes. Both will pleasure your taste buds but there will be some that say the texture of the meal done in that microwave just don’t compare to the meal that was done on the stovetop. The good thing is we now have choices. There are “Five Star” restaurants creating award-winning meals that use microwaves but there are still many that feel the only way to prepare a meal is with fire. They both will have their supporters and foodies will continue their debate about which way to go. I personally think there are some foods that should never see a microwave as they just don’t taste right and the same can be said of some of our favorite cars. No matter how fast these new transmissions change manufacturers like Porsche and BMW should always offer a manual somewhere. Porsche’s, ‘There Is No Other Substitute” and BMW’s, “The Ultimate Driving Machine”. Is it me or weren’t these marketing slogans created specifically for their manually driven cars? Nowadays enthusiasts can drive both!