I am someone who has publicly lamented the decline of the manual transmission. But I’m also someone who has enjoyed the merits of modern paddle shift gearboxes in many different cars.
I find myself very much split on this issue. So lets take a look at the various reasons why shifter paddles are replacing a gear lever and a third pedal in some of our favorite cars, and consider if it really is a good thing or not.
Note: To clear this up right away, by “paddle shift” I mean cars with automated manual gearboxes, either dual-clutch or single-clutch. I am in no way talking about anything like a Toyota Camry with the “sport package”, which has paddle shifters as a marketing gimmick.
1. More versatile on the road. (Having your cake and eating it too)
If you had something like a Lamborghini Diablo back in the mid 1990s chances are you had a lot of fun out on the open road. However, when you got into town and hit traffic, the heavy clutch made driving the car more of a $250,000 chore than an enjoyable way to spend a weekend afternoon. Considering the average speed of traffic on most roads is around 25-30mph, you’d be spending far more time putting along slowly than stretching the car’s legs. It’s a wonder why most owners hardly ever drove their exotic cars.
Today, Lamborghini only offers their cars with a paddle shift transmission. The sales numbers spoke for themselves. Once paddle shift was offered back around 2004, demand for manual Lambos simply fell off.
Paddle shift basically solved all the issues described above with the Diablo. Now, in an Aventador, you can rip your way into town and then just put the car in automatic mode when you hit traffic. You have a car that is a ferocious supercar when you want one, but is also just as easy to drive as a Toyota Camry when you don’t. You are no longer writing a six-figure check to put yourself through misery. And I agree, that is a major plus, especially in cars that had very difficult manual gearboxes like most supercars did.
2. Paddle Shifts are 80% as good to drive as a manual
What I mean by this is that paddle shift (dual clutch or single clutch) trannys offer a far better connection than a traditional automatic tranny did. Porsche has made automatic cars for a while, but they weren’t very popular because the gearbox was crap. That all changed when Porsche brought out their crisp-shifting PDK dual-clutch gearbox in 2009. Since then, they’ve seen a dramatic rise in demand for sports cars with only two pedals.
Paddle shift doesn’t require much of a sacrifice in your ability to control the car like previous automatics did. In fact, shift times are much faster in a paddle shift car than you could ever do with a manual. Modern paddle shift cars are very responsive, so the lack of a clutch pedal doesn’t really take away from the experience.
Counter Point: Have you ever forgotten to put the cheese in your omelette?
It’s a lot like that, actually. Sure, you’ll eat it anyway, and it tastes good enough, but you know damn well it isn’t as enjoyable as it should be. Personally, I loathe the idea of spending so much money on a car that makes me feel like I’ve been robbed of the succulent cheese in my omelette of life!
While a paddle shift gearbox doesn’t hinder the driving experience, I would also argue that it doesn’t add anything to the experience. Certainly not in the way that a well-sorted manual gearbox does. I’ve driven many manual and PDK Porsches. While PDK is probably the best paddle shift gearbox out there right now, the experience is definitely missing a key ingredient. Porsches, especially, give you this wonderful feeling when you execute a prefect shift at high RPM. It’ll send tingles up your spine every time, and that simply doesn’t happen in PDK cars.
3. The “poseur factor”
The Bugatti Veyron was a technological marvel when it came out, not because it could hit 253 mph, but because it could do it with such ease. Literally anyone, of any driving skill, can get in a Veyron and top 200mph without any trouble at all. That is an immense feat if you think about it, and still not many cars can match that ease of speed.
The problem with the ease of use, is that it opens up these cars to people who rally don’t care about cars at all. People who just wanna cruise around in a rolling status symbol. They want to brag about how it can do 250 mph, even though they’ve only topped 100 mph in it once, by accident.
4. Marketing bullshit
For most customers, especially in the range of a Porsche 911, paddle shift is entirely a marketing gimmick used to up-sell customers. “The car shifts faster and better than any racing driver can”, they may say to an inquiring customer. But it’s really just an effort to get them to spend extra money on the car. In a basic Porsche 911 Carrera, PDK is a $4,000 option.
In reality, most buyers will never actually see the benefits of faster shift times because they’ll just be using their sports car on public roads. If you want to race competitively to the point when a few tenths of a second while shifting gears matters, then buy an actual racing car.
Most car enthusiasts know that sports cars are just about having fun and enjoying a nice drive on your day off. And most car enthusiasts will agree that a manual transmission adds an invaluable aspect to the fun you have while driving around. In short, shift your own gears save the $4,000 for something more worthwhile.
5. Most real car enthusiasts don’t buy brand new cars
There is a very real difference between “liking cars” and being an actual “car enthusiast.”
People who “like cars” might buy a Porsche 911 when they’ve made some good money, paid off the house, and have the kids college all taken care of.
Actual “car enthusiasts” would rather live in a Porsche than have a house, and would use the money they saved to by a few other cars in addition. They may not have kids, but if they do, they’ll teach them to love working on cars so all that college money can go into turning the Porsche into a rally car instead.
Ok, so maybe not all of us enthusiasts go quite that extreme with things, but for us cars are a major priority in life. Often one that often supersedes financial security, relationships, and other things that most people would say are more important.
With that in mind, though, we know that spending $100k + for a new Porsche 911 Carrera is a total waste of money, unless you’re just rolling in dough. We’d rather spend 1/3 of that for a previous-gen 911 and have just as much fun. It’s gotta be a manual though, of course.
So that is likely why the demand for new manual Porsches, and other sports cars has seemingly decreased. Because the people who really want manuals are buying older cars that offer them a lot more value for money. It’s the poseurs and the folks who merely “like cars” that are spending the big bucks on brand new cars, and they want paddle shift because it’s “fancy.”
So what do we make of all this?
Realistically, what will happen, and is already happening, is that manual-equipped cars will climb in value, and paddle shift cars will drop like stones.
I recently had a discussion with someone looking to buy a Ferrari 360, and they asked if they should get one with a manual or paddle shift. I answered with a question, “Well, do you want to lose your money or not?”
The values of all manual Ferraris are going through the roof, and will most likely only continue to climb. Paddle shift Ferraris, on the other hand, are falling, and will keep falling more steeply. The “F1” gearbox is just a lot more expensive and finnicky to maintain than a manual is, and on a Ferrari we’re talking serious money. In addition, the older single-clutch F1 Ferraris feel very clunky and outdated compared to the newer, dual-clutch-equipped Ferraris.
All-in-all, my feeling is that we will continue to see more paddle shifts and less manuals for a while. But then companies will realize that demand is still strong for manuals and the manual transmission will see a resurgence, at least in area of enthusiast cars.
As for my own opinion on paddle shift vs. manual. I haven’t drunk the marketing Kool-Aid. I don’t care if paddles are faster because they are less fun. But at the same time, there are some types of cars I’d rather have paddle shift in than a manual.
I think paddle shift is ideal for grand touring cars, like a Ferrari F12, or for fast sedans, like a BMW M5. I also like paddle shift for the really insane hypercars, like the McLaren P1, because the speeds are legitimately racecar-fast. Even something like a Ferrari 458 Italia I felt was better off having a dual-cltuch auto than a manual. That’s because everything about the 458’s connection with the driver is so instantaneous that a manual would only hold it back.
Where I come into issues with paddle shifts replacing manuals is around the level of a basic supercar down to the level of a sports car. All Porsche 911s, ESPECIALLY the GT3/GT3 RS models, should come with at least the option of a manual gearbox. They are supposed to be purist-oriented sports cars, so a manual is integral to the experience. I simply don’t like the idea of a 911 GT3 RS that can be driven like a Toyota Camry, that makes it less special and far less appealing to me.
Going further down the market, replacing the manual gearbox becomes a really bad idea. I would never even consider buying a Porsche Boxster without a clutch pedal, let alone something that isn’t fast, like a Mazda Miata or a Subaru BRZ.
What I’ve found is that paddle shift is more acceptable when a car has many other aspects to enjoy, such as a lot of horsepower and brilliant handling. But in a slower car, like a Miata or BRZ/FR-S, having the fun of the manual gearbox is too big a fraction of the car’s enjoyment to go without. I’d much rather live with a paddle shift Porsche 911 GT3 RS than a non-manual Miata any day.
The only other issue I’ve found, even for cars that are good with paddle shift, is that it takes much of the driving enjoyment out of the car at lower speeds. In other words, you really have to push it harder to find the other enjoyable aspects of the car, rather than being able to just enjoy cruising along, going through the gears. On a race track, that’s cool. But in a car like a 911 GT3 on the street, you’re going to need to break traffic laws by a huge margin to really enjoy what the car has to offer.
I think I’ll just stick with a stick, and keep that luscious cheese in my omelette…
-Article by Nick Walker