“Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad”

I’m not down with all their rules, but… I am actually going somewhere with this.

Right now, there’s a corollary going on in the automotive world, as a couple of things continue to happen – they’ve been happening for a good twenty years now – the take-rate on manual transmissions drops, and the efficiency, and yes, fun, of “automatics” grows.

I’m incredibly torn on this. I love me a three-pedal car, I love banging my own gears, balancing throttle and clutch, throttle blipping, heel and toe (or my vague and pathetic attempt at it). There’s a skill-set involved in driving a manual that speaks to the enthusiast in me, and I think in general, that the manufacturers have never truly exploited.

For example, the take rate on manual transmissions is so low, everyone is killing their sticks (BMW is the latest, but won’t be the last, and is by no means the first). “No one buys manual transmissions” is the manufacturer cry.

Well, no kidding.

In most cases, manuals are only available on the poverty-spec vehicles – as soon as you want air-conditioning, nice seats, and a bigger engine, you’re forced to buy an automatic with the package. If you can’t get a manual with the features most people live with, then most are gonna opt up and live with the automatic. I mean, it’s easier, so it’s not tough to live with.

It’s a bit of a catch-22. A self-fulfilling prophecy.

That said, I’ve been on the track in “slow” “autotragic” cars (I’m thinking about my passenger seat stint in a very lightly modified Subaru BRZ with a flappy paddle transmission) and there’s something to be said for them. There’s no slow down, like a traditional automatic – the world of DSG’s and other clutchless manuals can often be faster than a manual, and has less user error potential, as well. Even traditional automatics, six-, eight-, and ten-speeds, with more to come, I’m sure, shift remarkably well in manual mode. It’s all in the code, and they can make it as sharp or soft as they want.

The land of “Three pedals good, two pedals bad” is blurring. If Napoleon the Pig was a car enthusiast, would he be the bad guy, advocating for the modern performance automatic?

So, why the manual then? Why stick with it?

Well, there’s some legitimate performance reasons – even if it’s slower (and it can be) there’s some driving you simply can’t do in an automatic. It’s not street-driving though, it’s full performance driving. There’s the downshift throttle blip – rev matching to smooth things out and stay in the power. Arguably, the automatic/DSG does this for you if it’s programmed to. More esoteric – drifiting. One of the techniques in drifting is the Clutch kick.

A lot of automatics are being paired with electronic parking brakes, rather than a traditional e-brake handle – can’t clutch in and rip the e-brake to initiate a slide with that set up. But, it’s also nothing a drifter’s hydraulic brake refit can’t fix, either, if you’re into it.

There’s the traditionalist argument, as well, but the phrase I hate most in the world is “Because we’ve always done it that way”. “That way” is not always better, even if you like it, and it makes you feel warm inside because something’s stay the same.

There’s a solid argument for the “soul” of the car. It’s a cliché, for sure – I owe James May’s jar a dollar – but there’s some legitimacy to it, as there is with all cliché’s. There’s a connection to the car that’s achieved driving manual. And it’s not just the touchy-feely connection – you have to understand how gears actually work, and why they work, to drive a stick effectively. It teaches you something about the engineering of the vehicle and how the power reaches the pavement. You learn about powerbands, and torque curves, even if you don’t know the names for them, because those are the sweet spots for where the engine lives, and where you get efficiency and power form it, and that’s valuable as well. It was, honestly, my first lesson in how a car works, and led me down the road to my interest in taking ‘em apart and putting ‘em back together.

And, I’m old, let’s face it.

Back in 2009 when I bought the Genesis, the one I test drove was not the one I bought – I tested a 3.8L, automatic/flappypaddle in red, I bought a 2.0T, 6MT, in blue. But I stepped out of that car, the test drive, and it had felt “odd” trying to remember to use the paddles. I’m sure there’s about a three week learning curve on it, a point at which it suddenly becomes natural and instinctive, but half an hour in it, and it felt…

…It felt like a video game. And I love video games, anyone who knows me, knows that. If you’d like, you can *unashamed plug* make a donation to me at extra-life.org for the 24-hour gameathon next month benefiting CHEO */unashamed plug* You can find me on STEAM, and XBL. I’ve got more consoles than.. well, than something. I’ve always loved gaming. I’ve got a couple of pieces coming about the crossover between the automotive world and gaming, for that mater.

But I still don’t know if I want my car to feel like a video game.

Are they faster? Yeah, these days. Porsche got it right first, then BMW, then… pretty much everyone. If you don’t have to spend a half second, a second pushing that pedal, moving the shifter, and releasing it? That’s gonna be faster. It’s also going to be more predictable, and repeatable – no user error, really.

It’s not actually a question of “when do we become the pigs?” Unlike in Animal Farm, we have to ask “is it bad to become the pigs?”

And I don’t have an answer, I really don’t. The traditionalist in me, and the car lover, wants that third pedal – I want the control that it gives. But the fan of performance? He (me) wants to go fast. And a good, performance semi-automatic, be it a traditional automatic that shifts, a DSG, or whatever, is damn fast.

For the moment, though, I’ll stick with my third pedal, I think. While I can have one. That’s as good a reason as any, because eventually, I won’t be able to have one (and maybe I won’t even want one), so, yeah. I’ll enjoy it now.

~Mark – extralife fundraiser is in 2 weeks! Please click on the link above and sponsor me, OR start your own team, to support your own, local, children’s hospital! It’s a really good cause. (and if you want advice, email me, or leave a comment)

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