Is the manual gearbox dead?

Is the manual gearbox dead? image

Text: Vince Pornelos / Photos: Vince Pornelos | posted April 11, 2014 14:30

The decline of the three pedal car

Depress the clutch with your left foot. Slot the shifter to first gear. Gradually release the clutch pedal while blending in some throttle.

These first driving lessons of mine are as clear to me like they happened yesterday, even though the year was 1998. I still remember the jerky motions that accompanied my first few shifts behind the wheel, not to mention the embarrassment that resulted in the times I stalled the engine of our 1994 Toyota Corolla GLi and the honking horns behind me as I frantically tried to get it going again.

4 years earlier when I was just 12 years old, we had just walked into the then-new Toyota Shaw-Ortigas dealership (now Toyota Pasig) to put a payment on a Corolla. Looking over the brochure and the price list there were 4 variants: the 1.3 XL 5MT with pawis steering, the 1.3 XE 5MT with power steering, the all-power 1.6 GLi 5MT as well as the 1.6 GLi 4AT.

Three manual variants versus one automatic. Dad opted for the manual 1.6 over the automatic. When I asked him why, I remember him saying: “Matics are baduy.”

Today, it's a very different story. At the launch of the 2014 Mazda3, we asked Japheth Castillo why there are no manual transmission versions for the Japan-made, Philippine-bound Mazda3 models. We thought that's a shame after trying out the Mazda3 on some great roads.

What gives?

Simple: Manual transmissions have fallen out of general favor... a dying breed.

We think there are three reasons for this trend.

The first is, of course, traffic. The sheer frequency of traffic in the Metro and beyond is getting worse as more cars take to the road every year and every day. It doesn't help either that old and dilapidated vehicles are still running (some barely) and that road expansion just simply can't keep up. Driving a 2 pedal car, SUV, pick up or van is just far more convenient.

The second is that automatics are far more reliable, far more advanced and ultimately far more efficient than before. For the most part, gone are the days when automatic transmissions rob plenty of the engine's power and torque to enable you to drive with two pedals. We now have a wide range of transmissions to choose from with optimized torque converter automatics, continuously variable transmissions (CVT) and dual clutch transmissions, all of which operate with minimal power loss and far better efficiency.

The third is that more and more drivers are learning with automatics first and manuals second or not even at all. One driving instructor at a popular driving school told us how typically only 1 in 3 students ask to learn how to drive stick. They also tend to ask to learn to drive aboard either the same or similar versions of the car, SUV or MPV they have at home; most of which are also automatics.

The falling demand for manual transmission models has also been noticed by car manufacturers and distributors in the Philippines, and they're changing their mindsets about how they offer their products. Out of 5 variants of the 2014 Corolla Altis only 2 are manuals. The current Honda Civic, long the favorite of tuners, only has one manual out of 5 variants. The Ford Focus only has one stick shift version out of 7 models. The Mitsubishi Lancer EX has a more even ratio, as 2 models out of 4 are manuals, but the newly launched Mazda3 (and even the previous generation) are all automatics.

Such is the trend. It's really quite a shame, as there are some great manufacturers of manual gearboxes. Personally my favorites are the 6-speed manual transmissions in the Mazda MX-5 and the Honda CR-Z; the latter's gearbox is just perfect. The unfortunate part is that these are low volume performance models, not the cars that are typically bought by every Juan.

The manual transmission is not necessarily dead, but it is becoming a rare breed. Cars with manual gearboxes are now niche products; novelties reserved only for performance models. Of course this doesn't include models meant for taxi fleets and the commercial sector, which just means that three pedals are usually only offered in the entry or lower variants in a model range. Yes, top spec models have a 'manual' (sport) mode with paddles or the +/- gate on the automatic shifter, but it's really not the same; not even close in terms of driver involvement or satisfaction.

It's the classic dichotomy between desire and necessity. Today very few motorists want manuals but a good majority need automatics. It seems our beloved manual gearboxes will end up being reserved for weekends when the traffic is clear while automatics are better for everyday driving.

The sad part is that I can see what they mean. Driving a manual in Metro Manila traffic is hell; try doing so on rush hour EDSA traffic and you'll see why automatics are great. I still love a good manual transmission, but it's getting harder to drive one everyday as traffic gets worse.

We who drive stick are, in a way, becoming collector's items, much like the good ol' manual gearbox.