It’s been a long time – more than 30 years – since young drivers needed to learn the art of shifting gears with a 3-pedal manual transmission.
Thanks to the torque converter, modern automatic transmissions dominate the U.S. light-vehicle market. More recently developed continuously-variable and dual-clutch transmissions have further cemented that trend.
But the old-school shift-it-yourself gearbox is hanging tough, and this year’s Ward’s 10 Best Engines competition confirms it.
Of 38 vehicles evaluated this year, 14 featured 3-pedal manuals, nearly all of them with six speeds. That’s an astounding 37%.
Of the first 20 vehicles that arrived for testing, 11 had manual gearboxes. With all these manuals streaming into the office, one might have thought we’d moved the staging of the event to Paris or Berlin.
But no, this trend is taking hold in the U.S. of A., despite the alarming regularity with which motorists send text messages, apply makeup, eat lunch and read while driving. An automatic transmission makes multi-tasking possible; self-shifting with a clutch complicates matters.
Oh sure, performance coupes and sporty luxury sedans, especially those from Germany, have held down the manual fort for years in the U.S. market.
The latest resurgence of manual-transmission availability can be seen in a raft of affordable new small cars we tested, including the Mazda2, Nissan Juke, Ford Fiesta and Chevy Cruze.
It makes good sense for auto makers to offer manuals in these vehicles because they might enable a young shopper to save hundreds of dollars and buy a new car, rather than used.
Compared with an automatic, the manual generally is less expensive and accelerates faster and, after decades of experience, has been proven reliable. And it’s lighter, so it boosts fuel economy.
At least that used to be the case, but many electronically controlled multi-speed automatics have become so efficient, in some newer vehicle applications they get better mileage than a manual, when available.
Either way, don’t start writing obituaries for the manual transmission, especially when cars like the Honda CR-Z hybrid-electric vehicle and hot-selling Hyundai Sonata arrive for Ward’s 10 Best Engines testing with 3-pedal configurations.
These came with manuals too: Audi S4, BMW 335i, Ford Shelby GT500, Ford Mustang (both V-8 and V-6 models), Chevy Corvette Grand Sport, Subaru Legacy GT and Mini Cooper S.
Of course, automotive journalists seem predisposed to keep the fires burning for DIY gearboxes as long as possible, and we realize auto makers probably send them over, knowing that’s what we want.
For 10 Best Engines testing, a manual does allow us to explore an engine’s powerband more readily, so there’s an advantage. But newer automatics, especially of the dual-clutch variety, have gotten so good that at times they might be preferable.
Yes, we like 3-pedal shifting, but if the automatic transmission provides a better showcase for a particular engine, then that’s the one we’d rather drive.
Ward's 10 Best Engines is a copyright of Penton Media Inc. Commercial references to the program and/or awards are prohibited without prior permission of Ward's Automotive Group.