Saturday, October 17, 2009

Why I prefer to change gears manually (*)

Soon most people will not remember the time when shifting gears in a car meant pushing the clutch pedal, manually changing from one gear to another by moving a lever and the releasing the clutch pedal, all in a subtle and well controlled way. More and more cars come with automatic gearboxes or robotized manual gear boxes and less and less cars actually do have a clutch pedal (the third pedal on the left side in the car).
But, myself, I still love to shift manually and that's why my 1987 Mercedes 300 SL has a manual gearbox. And with this it's a rarity as roughly 90% of all the 300 SLs were delivered with an automatic gearbox and offically the manual version wasn't even imported into Switzerland. Selecting the manual gearbox in the 80ies made sense though. The hand shifted 300 SL was not only quicker it was also more fuel efficient (8-15% depending on the driving cycle). Also the automatic gearbox only had four gears while the manual gearbox had five. Since then a lot of progress has been made. Modern automatic transmissions and even more the now fashionable double-clutch-gearboxes beat the average driver with a manual gearbox both in terms of acceleration 0-100 km/h and fuel efficiency. So there's no reason to pick a manual gearbox today, you would say. Well, wrong. In my eyes there are at least three reasons to still go for manual. Firstly, only the manual gearbox makes you really feel involved into the driving and the process of switching gears. Clutching and de-clutching and double-clutching, this all makes you experience what's happening between the engine and the wheels. Secondly, it's about being in control. Most (if not all) of these new gearboxes will only do what you ask it to do, if it makes sense for the "system". So you can't change to fifth gear for example if the speed is to low or the gearbox will automatically change gears even if you are in manual mode, if the driving conditions make the control unit think that the gear should be changed. So, you don't really have full control. It's like if you were walking into a Davidoff-shop, order a box of cigars and when you want to pay your wallet tells you that you can't have the money because smoking is bad for your health (which is true, but you get the point, don't you?). The third reason for not selecting the DSG or automatic box is the extra weight and the extra money that comes or goes with it.
So, I made my case. But you may have noticed the "*" in the title. Yes, there are situations where I prefer automatic gear boxes and my everyday car has one too. But if it's about fun, involvement and control I prefer the manual one. Except I probably would take the Ferrari Scuderia with the F1 gearbox as on the track it is so much easier to drive. But I am only on a track so often, which means for most of the other cars I am going to buy in the future a manual gearbox is going to be it, or not?

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