There’s nothing quite like rowing through the gears while driving quickly, cracking off a heel-and-toe downshift right before diving into a corner, and slotting the shifter into top gear at high speed. It connects driver and car in ways that cars with only two pedals just can’t. That’s been a long-held belief for decades, and the general belief was that if a car was designed for driving pleasure, it usually had a manual gearbox. The last 15 years or so have seen a shift, however, as the technology of semi-automatic gearboxes, often controlled by paddles behind the steering wheel, has gotten better and better. They allow the driver to choose the desired gear, but use computers to do the actual business of changing them, and do it in a fraction of the time that a human hand and foot possibly could. Semi-automatic “flappy paddle” gearboxes also work more effectively with the computer systems of many modern performance cars these days that control anything from ride height to braking to exhaust note. The top shelf hypercars did away with manuals years ago, and now there is movement toward automatics across the board.
Manufacturers also cite that demand for a good old-fashioned manual has dropped as well, and among many of the biggest names in performance, the familiar clutch pedal is starting to disappear altogether. Lamborghini claimed before axing manual transmissions last year that demand for manual Gallardos was almost zero. Even Ferrari stopped making cars with their iconic open gate aluminum shifter, while BMW is phasing out manuals on several of their models, including the upcoming M5 and M6. Buyers who want a high-end performance car and insist on a manual therefore seem to be running out of options. Mercifully, however, there are a number of manufacturers who, at least for now, haven’t forgotten about these buyers who prefer driving pleasure over computers and lap times.
Astons have never claimed to be the fastest cars on the road, nor have they ever been the best value. What they are about is sexy looks, high quality materials and a combination of comfort and high performance. That word comfort might imply that more computers and less fussing with gear changes would be the way to go, and while it is true that automatic Astons are becoming more prevalent, the company hasn’t forgotten their roots and hasn’t abandoned the driving enthusiasts. The Vantage GT is the cheapest Aston in the lineup, and it has a short-throw 6-speed and steering unencumbered by electronic aids that leave the driver feeling more connected and involved, even if it isn’t the fastest thing on four wheels. The quick V12 Vantage S also recently became available in a manual.
Automatic transmissions have been popular on the Corvette since the beginning and for many these cars are just as much about show as they are about go, but Z06 that was introduced on the C5 in 2001 is a more focused and performance-oriented version. The newest C7 generation Corvette is a big change from its predecessor and a thoroughly modern car, but the fundamentals remained the same with a pushrod V-8 up front, rear-wheel drive and an available manual gearbox. The Z06 version of the C7, despite its savage 638-hp performance, lets the driver do the shifting and regardless of price, it one of the fastest and most pleasurable cars on the market today.
People don’t buy a Lotus because they want the fastest car they can get. They buy it because it’s one of the most nimble and downright fun cars on the road. While the Evora model is a bit long in the tooth and there are few logical reasons to pick it over something like a 911, it did just get a refresh and it’s a 400-hp, mid-engined sports car with a proper 6-speed. That’s a very uncommon recipe in the world of new cars today.
Porsche 911 R
The original 911R of 1967 was a lightened, fiberglass-bodied version of the 911S intended for racing. Porsche resurrected the name at the Geneva Motor Show this year with a new car that combines bits from the 911 GT3 and the GT3 RS (including the 493-hp engine) and is the lightest 911 currently on offer. It’s lightened and track-focused with plastic windows, no back seat, a roll cage and a magnesium roof, but rather than give it a sequential gearbox to save a few fractions of a second when shifting, Porsche only offers the 911 R with a 6-speed manual because it’s primarily meant to be an engaging car to drive. The 911 R is sort of like a larger sibling of Porsche’s other recent driver-focused smash hit, the Cayman GT4. That car also comes with a manual.
Click here to view Porsches with a manual gearbox
[photos: Porsche; Aston Martin; General Motors; Lotus;]
By Andrew Newton