PH Service History - Automatically better?


Many years ago, when I was first learning to drive - sometime before the Black Death - if you mentioned that you fancied an automatic car then wise old men would shake their heads, look at their feet and whistle through their teeth and then go on to say that they were more trouble than they were worth. They would rabbit on about how unreliable they were, and how they were slower than a manual car and how they robbed you of all driving pleasure, and that you couldn't bump start them when they broke down, and that they were really only suitable for a 'lady' or someone who knew nothing about cars.

Real men, after all, knew all about cars, and they drove only manuals, because they all possessed the ability to judge precisely the right time to change gear in any particular situation in any particular car, and trampling a clutch pedal to the floor was seen as a good judge of one's general virility too.

So, leap forward a few years, and if they were right how do you explain the McLaren P1, or the LaFerrari? Or the 488 Pista or the 675LT? Or the AMG GT or an M5? Would you expect a manual 'box in a Rolls-Royce Phantom, or an S-Class Mercedes, or even the humble Alfa Romeo Giulia I was driving yesterday? Great cars, all, and while they may have stepped transmissions with the option of a DIY gearchange not one of them has an old-fashioned manual gearbox and clutch pedal combo. You see these modern autos are lighter, and cars equipped with them are faster, and more efficient.


Certain classes of car seem tailor-made for an automatic 'box, too. City cars - which perversely are still mostly bought as manual cars - are surely better suited to autos, while executive cars and luxury cars and grand tourers are nearly all autos - after all if you've got the money, why do the work yourself? The truth is there is no SUV, and probably no family hatch, that would not be a little more suave for an automatic gearbox. Hybrids and EVs lend themselves to one as a matter of course, the best dispensing with multiple ratios full stop. In short, we all know where this is going: the manual gearbox is about as modern as a thatched roof. It's dead. Get over it.

And yet. Some of my colleagues here at PH Towers are huge fans of the manual gearbox. Matt Bird's news story earlier this week highlighted the possibility of a manual version of the new Toyota Supra, and our Matt Prior whooped with joy during his recent drive in a Ferrari F355, swapping cogs the old-fashioned way. Some purists will only accept a Porsche thus equipped, and even Aston continue to flirt with manual 'boxes. Indeed there are certain cars for which a manual gearbox still seems irreplaceable.

For example, how sweet would this wondrous Mk1 MX-5 be with an auto box? Actually, maybe not... That's always been an option on the little Mazda, of course, but few took it up over here. This slick manual shifter could be yours as-is for a mere £1,850, and I doubt if you'd ever give much thought to an auto box if you bought this beauty.


Same for this Suzuki Swift Sport, which is a diminutive lightweight flyer with eager handling and the character of a cocker spaniel puppy. Would you want a converter swirling your torque, or two clutches poised to take command automatically as you punt this £5k tot around your favourite roundabout? Probably not.

Would you want an automatic Caterham? I think not. Certainly not considering the wonderful simplicity and purity of this 1994 example, with its humble four-speed gearbox. Imagine the involvement that cog-swapping brings to driving this low-slung, lightweight funster.

I can't imagine an auto Civic Type R, either, and indeed there isn't even an option for one, even though a Golf GTI and Golf R are both similar quantities and they work well enough with an auto 'box. This barely used version of the CTR is on offer in our classifieds for £27,795, a reasonable saving on its list price, and such is its magnificence in all other areas I think that even I could overlook the changing-gear-yourself chore. It's a lovely gearbox, in fact.


The manual box in this Focus RS isn't quite so slick, but I still think the car would have its lively appeal stifled by an auto. Indeed it's pleasant enough in use to justify Ford's choice in making this a manual-only gripster. That you can now pick one up for £23,950 is certainly reason enough to consider living in the past.

Would an auto suit a RenaultSport Megane? Well, clearly Renault believed it'd suit the RS Clio 200, but there are others who thought them very wrong on that one, and the latest RS Megane now has a dual-clutch option. The Megane has in the past always been fired down the road by a stick shift, and this delightful example is a relatively new 2016 275 Nav version, up for just £17,200 - a lot of bang for your buck.

Those Porsche purists all love the Cayman GT4, and so do we. With 385hp and 0 to 62mph in 4.4 seconds there's every good reason, and its glorious chassis only seals the deal. It's a six-speed manual only here, pop-pickers, and it's very good, even if its clutch is a little heavy and its gearing is a little long. I wouldn't let that stop you parting with £69,950 to buy this one, though.


If you fancy something even more butch, you can't beat a Vauxhall VXR8. This one puts out 440hp from its 6.2 V8, drives the rear wheels (natch) and does it all through a mighty meaty six-speed manual, mate. You can boot its tail out in corners and use it as a mini-cab in the evenings, if you wish. Despite the heft of the gear change and the clutch you'll not regret buying it (unless that mini-cabbing takes you into town a lot) and this one looks reasonable value at £25k.

So, lovers of the manual, be positive. If one day us faceless droogs are all driving around in brand new, whisper-quiet, autonomous, hydrogen-powered electric hatchbacks with seamless and stepless transmissions, you will still be able to fling open your garage door, dust down your cherished manual performance car, pull on your string-back driving gloves, don your racing shoes and boot that clutch pedal into oblivion.


 

Mark Pearson

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (41) Join the discussion on the forum

  • wab172uk 30 Sep 2018

    I cannot stand Automatic cars.

    I absolutely hate the fact that all cars are going this way. I own an Audi S3 Saloon manual, and I'm sad to say, as much as I like the car (great all rounder, but not much fun) it'll be my last Audi. No S or RS Audi now come with a manual gearbox. Not sure about the yet to be launched S1.

    I had been lucky enough to own a manual R8 V8 for over 3 years. And although the gearbox wasn't the quickest, I didn't car less. That Click Clack on every change, just made the driving the car such an enjoyment.

    The choice is being taken away from us. I fully believe people are just becoming lazy in the way they drive. One hand on the steering wheel, elbow on the arm rest, and whizzing round round-a-bouts with no indication, because it's too much effort to lift their heavy arm off the armrest to flick an indicator stalk.

    Automatic headlights as people can't tell when it's dark
    Automatic parking, as people can't park

    Sad times, that are only going to get sadder, and we are heading further and further towards fully autonomous car, that I believe will be lapped you by Joe public.

  • Helicopter123 30 Sep 2018

    wab172uk said:
    I cannot stand Automatic cars.

    I absolutely hate the fact that all cars are going this way. I own an Audi S3 Saloon manual, and I'm sad to say, as much as I like the car (great all rounder, but not much fun) it'll be my last Audi. No S or RS Audi now come with a manual gearbox. Not sure about the yet to be launched S1.

    I had been lucky enough to own a manual R8 V8 for over 3 years. And although the gearbox wasn't the quickest, I didn't car less. That Click Clack on every change, just made the driving the car such an enjoyment.

    The choice is being taken away from us. I fully believe people are just becoming lazy in the way they drive. One hand on the steering wheel, elbow on the arm rest, and whizzing round round-a-bouts with no indication, because it's too much effort to lift their heavy arm off the armrest to flick an indicator stalk.

    Automatic headlights as people can't tell when it's dark
    Automatic parking, as people can't park

    Sad times, that are only going to get sadder, and we are heading further and further towards fully autonomous car, that I believe will be lapped you by Joe public.
    There are some manufacturers that make an effort to support those drivers who prefer to change their own gears, like Porsche for example, with their non-GT cars but demand is so low you wonder how much longer that will persist? Unless demand exists from new car buyers then the manual box is dead, at least in the performance car market.

    Even things like the new Renault Alpine is auto only and as a 'drivers car' aimed at enjoyment on roads rather than track (and opposed to outright performance) it really should have had a manual box IMO.

    Edited by Helicopter123 on Sunday 30th September 10:11

  • Niffty951 30 Sep 2018

    This article is too Jeremy Vine to get my blood boiling today but I'd challenge your primary assumption that an automatic is the smoother choice. For a particular type of driving yes, but a manual offers versatility to adapt to all driving styles.

    Try making good progress as smoothly in an automatic as you can in a manual, particularly through roundabouts and you'll quickly find youself jerking backwards and forwards as the box confuses shifts trying to make a gap, overrides ypur manual gear selection and changes down due to kickdown, gives inconsistencies in engine braking as you have to adjust for traffic. My personal pet hate, doesn't select the right gear from the apex so leaves you waiting for the downchange in the wrong gear because it has made a judgement on too much steering angle to shift. Until finally it makes the shift with only 1000rpm to go and has to fit another shift in to return to the gear you just left. Where is the logic in this.

    The 8-speed boxes are the worst with their indecisive motorway gear selection, blink and it wants to get up to the highest gear but try to gently increase in speed following traffic or up a hill and it sounds like you're playing the accordion as it wants to select a different gear for every millimetre of throttle travel.

    The constant argument and interruption between driver and gearbox ruins and connection between throttle pedal and engine. Subtle changes in speed desired by the driver offer no confidence on repeatability from one throttle application to the next.

    In a manual you can very quickly learn how much throttle will have what effect in any given gear or circumstance, in a automatic you can never relax and be sure the car won't act counter to your intentions by downshifting and waking up your passengers.

    Edited by Niffty951 on Sunday 30th September 11:00

  • wab172uk 30 Sep 2018

    Niffty951 said:
    This article is too Jeremy Vine to get my blood boiling today but I'd challenge your primary assumption that an automatic is the smoother choice. For a particular type of driving yes, but a manual offers versatility to adapt to all driving styles.

    Try making good progress as smoothly in an automatic as you can in a manual, particularly through roundabouts and you'll quickly find youself jerking backwards and forwards as the box confuses shifts trying to make a gap, overrides ypur manual gear selection and changes down due to kickdown, gives inconsistencies in engine braking as you have to adjust for traffic. My personal pet hate, doesn't select the right gear from the apex so leaves you waiting for the downchange in the wrong gear because it has made a judgement on too much steering angle to shift. Until finally it makes the shift with only 1000rpm to go and has to fit another shift in to return to the gear you just left. Where is the logic in this.

    The 8-speed boxes are the worst with their indecisive motorway gear selection, blink and it wants to get up to the highest gear but try to gently increase in speed following traffic or up a hill and it sounds like you're playing the accordion as it wants to select a different gear for every millimetre of throttle travel.

    The constant argument and interruption between driver and gearbox ruins and connection between throttle pedal and engine. Subtle changes in speed desired by the driver offer no confidence on repeatability from one throttle application to the next.

    In a manual you can very quickly learn how much throttle will have what effect in any given gear or circumstance, in a automatic you can never relax and be sure the car won't act counter to your intentions by downshifting and waking up your passengers.

    Edited by Niffty951 on Sunday 30th September 11:00
    I've tried a couple DSG A3's, as pondered buying an RS3. In D, it's slow witted, and in S it hangs on to gears for dear life.

    Dreadful, just dreadful. But people lap it up, and I don't understand why?

    Better mpg? Only because the DSG can go from 1st to 7th and cheat the figures.
    Faster 0-60? Who gives a S**t?
    Faster round a track by 1.4 seconds. Again who gives a S**t?


    Edited by wab172uk on Sunday 30th September 12:17

  • janesmith1950 30 Sep 2018

    Not all autos are the same. The 8 speed auto in my V90 is pretty crap, with clunky, slow witted responses to changing demands from the engine.

    The 8 speeders I've had in 1 and 3 Series BMWs have been excellent and far more predictable than the Volvo.

    The DCT in my M3 is a marvel, with 3 modes of sensitivity and the ability to be super smooth at one end and savage at the other. For me it's the best of both worlds.

    Compared to the 4 speed in Dad's old V8 RR Classic back in the 90s, they're all on a different planet.

    Of the manuals I've enjoyed, Honda boxes always seem to feel just right, both at clutch pedal and stick change. Even a Jazz was satisfying to throw between 3rd, 4th and 5th. The EP3 Civic was especially good, so much so you'd find yourself changing for the sake of it sometimes.

    Both have their place and neither is massively compromised compared to the other.

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