AA Buyer's Guide: Is the manual gearbox dead?
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It’s hard to deny that the overarching trend over the last few years has been that the manual transmission is on its way out.
We get it. People like automatics: they’re easier to drive, cheaper on fuel and aren’t a constant struggle in bumper-to-bumper traffic. New drivers feel the same and only 20 per cent of driving lessons conducted at AA Driving School are in a manual car.
Manufacturers are now offering an abundance of automatic transmissions which offer a manual-like experience: the direct shift transmission (DSG), Tiptronic, and paddle shifts. Let’s face it though, it’s not quite the same.
When comparing the top 15 most popular passenger vehicle sales of 2020 so far, it’s no surprise that only two - the Suzuki Swift and Vitara - are offering manual transmissions. In 2018, there were four vehicle models offering a manual variant.
If you’re someone who still wants to exercise that left leg, there are still a few compelling reasons to choose the manual model.
Maintenance on a manual transmission is low, and they’re relatively easy to service. Oil changes are infrequent, and the most common item that will need attention is the clutch, which in most cases is a simple mechanical assembly.
In comparison, an automatic transmission can often be a costly rebuild at a specialist shop when a failure occurs. A skilled mechanic will often be able to diagnose and rectify internal faults on a manual transmission such as bearings and worn synchros without the need of a specialist transmission shop.
There’s just something about dropping a gear and pushing the RPM just that little bit higher that brings out the petrol head in people. Drivers who desire more control and want that delicate balance between human and machine tend to prefer manual cars.
Sure, there’s the risk of accidentally stalling in fourth gear in the supermarket carpark, but who’s bothered? The more connected someone feels to their car and the road, the more intimate the driving experience becomes and some models are simply perfect for this kind of driving.
Take a specialist model like the Honda Civic Type R; this aggressive piece of machine is only available with a 6-speed manual coupled to a transmission cooler and a Helical limited slip diff. The Honda VTEC engine simply craves higher RPM and the manual transmission allows drivers to keep the engine singing to achieve impressive (yet very noisy) performance from the 2.0l turbocharged engine.
The latest hot hatch to come out from Toyota - the GR Yaris - is also a 6-speed stick shift AWD and is propelled by a 1.6l three-cylinder engine.
Once upon a time nothing screamed “tradie” more than a rugged manual ute or van. A lot has changed over the years, and with the advancement in automatic technology we’re now seeing a shift in favour of automatics in the commercial sector. A decade ago, 80 per cent of new utility vehicles were sold with a manual gearbox. Fast-forward we’ve seen a complete U-turn. Out of New Zealand’s top three selling commercial vehicles so far in 2020 - the Ford Ranger, Toyota Hilux, and Mitsubishi Triton - only the Hilux offers manual variants.
Automatic vs manual
Automatic transmissions are designed to choose the best gear for any situation, but they can sometimes be a bit cautious. Some have learning capability and like to think they know your driving style, but still tend to change down a gear when you may not be quite ready for it. Sure, a lot of the latest transmissions have “manual” modes where you can change gears using the lever or paddles, but while this is a good for a bit of fun at first, it’s seldom used long term.
Manual transmissions give drivers the ability to take control over their vehicle gearshifts and enjoy the freedom of controlling a “box of gears”, which can be particularly important for commercial vehicles carrying an extra load or towing on a regular basis. Some buyers just prefer it this way.