Illustration by Chris PhilpotCar and Driver
From the August 2020 issue of Car and Driver.If you want to know why the manual transmission is as endangered as the northern white rhino, Arctic sea ice, and trust in government, the answer might just be attached to your steering wheel. The manual gearbox is being killed off by paddles.The, um, shift away from manual-equipped performance cars actually began when top-level race cars, particularly tech-forward F1 machines, got paddle shifters in the late 1980s and internationally famous race drivers started using them. That’s when it became not only acceptable but sexy for high-performance cars to have them—and for enthusiasts to embrace them. The tipping point came when Ferrari—the first F1 team to employ paddle shifters—abandoned manual transmissions in its production cars entirely by 2011, further solidifying paddle-shifted automatics as the enthusiast’s choice.
Over time, paddle-shifted transmissions were honed to the point of brilliance, and enthusiasts began to discover the automatic’s innate advantages: It’s both fun and deeply satisfying to flick off perfect rapid-fire gearchanges like Lewis Hamilton. How about no more clutching in bumper-to-bumper traffic? Or ever? No need to master heel-toe downshifting, either. And no more crunching gears on ill-executed shifts; the computer’s got you covered. As our testing has proven, automatic-equipped high-performance cars are virtually always quicker than their manual-transmission counterparts. No wonder that consumer demand for manual gearboxes has dwindled. And with take rates in the single digits, killing a variable as expensive as a transmission is a windfall for product planners.Like it or not, the rise of paddle shifters and the fall of the manual gearbox follow the ongoing shift from analog to digital cars, where launch control, stability control, anti-lock brakes, and semi-autonomous systems do a lot of the hard work for you. But that’s not always a good thing. In our worldview, you should be the master of your car, not simply the operator. We lionize skill and driver engagement—we’re the “Save the Manuals!” people, after all. But as technology forges forward, something’s gained and something’s lost. Despite our plaintive protestations, the manual transmission is dying and may soon be gone altogether. You can thank paddles for that.
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