The rise of automatic transmissions that relay code quicker than humans can send directives from brain to limb – and ones that know their engine partner more intimately than you or I ever could and can therefore be more efficient – means having a third pedal is simply redundant.
This sort of logical argument doesn’t exist in the minds of car enthusiasts with an old-school love of manual gearboxes. But before you go dousing me in transmission oil, hold up: I’m with you; I’m one of you. But I also know that history dictates that the slow death of the manual needs to continue. Let me digress for a moment to explain the theory…
In the 1990s and early 2000s, power was king. Manufacturers kept throwing more kilowatts at cars that were getting increasingly larger and heavier.
When the VE Commodore program was signed off the VT Commodore was still blitzing the sales charts as a larger, heavier and more powerful model than the VS it replaced. Speaking with Holden insiders, they said why wouldn’t they have replaced the VT generation with a VE that was larger, heavier and more powerful? Because they failed to read the times. The VF Commodore has since become lighter, more efficient, but not smaller, and its death knell has sounded.
Today, lightness is key. Driving a Peugeot 2008 recently, it all hit home. It’s a mini-wagon that looks like an SUV, but one which weighs as much as a light hatchback and has the dainty ride and handling that once characterised French cars. At least in manual form, you’d never believe it had a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine – lightness means it feels like a 1.8- or 2.0-litre. But it took Peugeot a generation of horribly heavy, dull machines like the 207 to realise their mistake.
Ford and GM are still dealing with a generation of cars that are simply too tubby. The Holden Cruze weighs 1400kg, utilising a 1.8-litre engine designed for an 1150kg Astra in the 1990s. The Ford Focus and Kuga are among the heaviest in their class, and neither have a performance and efficiency edge. But I’ll bet the manual gearbox in my 1989 205 GTi that the next generations of each are much lighter.
Can you see where I’m going with this? The manual needs to be on death’s doorstep before it can be rescued. By the time so few are available, it will be up to the inspired, innovative manufacturers to capitalise on them.
Affordable sports coupes were all but dead until Toyota and Subaru came from nowhere to deliver the most successful affordable sports coupe of the modern era. Driving enthusiasts adore the 86 and BRZ as much as those with a love for swoopy styling.
The three-cylinder engine was going the way of the T. Rex until manufacturers realised that shedding weight and adding turbochargers meant they were suddenly useful again. And engines with fewer than four cylinders have been among the highlights of my motoring year.
The Fiat 500 TwinAir, with just two cylinders and 0.9-litre capacity, has provided me with the most fun I’ve had over a weekend in a press car. Its light-flywheel feel means it spins towards its redline with a verve and enthusiasm I haven’t experienced since the Renault F4R 2.0-litre engine in the 1035kg Clio RS 182 (not the weighty 1280kg Clio RS 197 that followed, poor engine).
Okay, our 500 press car came with an awful single clutch automated-manual gearbox, but not even that would stop me buying one. You slap the tipshifter like a jockey whipping a horse and roll your right foot off the throttle anticipating every upshift, then slam it back into the carpet. You just drive the ultra-light Bambino around flat-stick everywhere and near-triple the claimed consumption figure of 4L/100km – brilliant!
Close behind is the Mini 1.5-litre turbo three-cylinder and now-defunct Volkswagen Up! 1.0-litre non-turbo triple.
So, back to the out-of-fashion manual. At the launch of the Renault Sport Megane RS275 Trophy R at the Nurburgring last month, a Renault product planner defended the decision to make the Clio RS auto-only by stating shift speeds, efficiency gains, legislation requirements, what the market wants, trends set by LaFerrari and Porsche 911 GT3, and pretty much everything except for whether the Greek god Zeus preferred his centre console to have P, R, N and D on it.
The irony wasn’t lost on me that this was at an event for a hot-hatch designed to specifically conquer a racetrack that almost none of its owners will ever drive at, or have the talent to drive at to the extent of splitting Seat and Renault Sport bragging rights.
Just as crusty old blokes bemoaned that all kids want these days is iPod connectivity and pretty colours and lights in their Kia Soul, until that theory crumbled the millisecond the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ launched. I have a 19-year-old brother who couldn’t care less about cars, but wants an 86 manual – I wouldn’t be so sure future generations want to treat their cars as digitised set-and-forget appliances.
It will be the inspired manufacturers that pick up on this early. They will understand that cars are more than about shift times and customer clinic cliché, and right-now popularity to the detriment of brand image and harbouring loyalists. So let the manual die a bit, for now. Lighter cars and small engines had to suffer first, too. I’ll be first in line for the future product of any manufacturer that refuses to take the predictable path, and I have a feeling I’m not alone here…