How many pedals should a proper car have?

I recently read a Road & Track Editorial by Sam Smith, "The Case for Manual the Transmission: Why we take matters into our own hands. (And feet)." It addressed a question I have recently been asking myself: is there still a place in this automotive world for manual transmissions?

A generation ago one could rationalize why manual transmissions were better. They were cheaper, had better performance and delivered lower fuel consumption. If you happened to like driving a car with three pedals, you could convince everyone you made the right choice, including yourself, without needing to delve into esoteric or emotional rationalizations. No longer. While the transmission engineers of the world seem to be split on whether a DSG, CVT or conventional automatic with a bizzilion gears is the best way to transmit power, it is clear that manual transmissions no longer lord over others in terms of performance or consumption.

In the US marketplace, manual transmissions have always been somewhat scarce, at least during my considerable lifetime. I was raised in a home where every car had a manual transmission, save one, a 1968 Buick. My wife, too, grew up with parents who always shifted their own gears, and to his credit, my octogenarian father-in-law has three cars and has to shift them all. Thus, Susan and I always had cars with manual transmissions and we never considered getting anything else. That changed for Susan out of medical necessity when a painful foot problem meant she could no longer disengage the substantial clutch in her Saab 9000 Aero without pain, so that car was replaced with a wagon with a nice 5-speed automatic. Susan loves it. She misses a clutch pedal not at all, and while she can now drive a car with a clutch, she really prefers her automatic. However, while I don't mind driving that car, would not want to drive it, or any automatic, as a daily driver. 

What killed any small interest in manual transmissions in the US market? I don't think it was engineering logic. I think it was Dunkin Donuts coffee and cell phones. It is hard to drink coffee and talk on your phone while driving, and near impossible if you have to shift, too. People have their priorities.

While it is clear that ultra-performance and luxury cars will demand the peak performance offered by self shifting transmissions, I can say that in most any car I would be interested in owning that I would want a proper manual transmission, no matter the performance sacrifice. In Mr. Smith's editorial, he cites escapism and romanticism that keeps him shifting his own gears. I suppose there is a bit of that. Plus, I like knowing that when I up shift on hard acceleration, or heel and toe a double clutch my way to a perfect rev match when cornering, that I had something to do with how my car performs. In an automatic, I'd still be steering and braking, but the nuances would be left to a processor which would be shifting according to some faceless engineer's desires, not mine. I am not averse to technology, but there are still a few analogue things I like to do for myself. I grind coffee beans (sometimes). I play the cello and would never want my intonation  "autotuned" or tone "corrected" electronically. I cut my own hair. I iron my own clothes. I make my own salad dressing. I shift my own gears. I guess, in the end, it is enough to say that I like doing things for myself--like shifting--and I can only hope that there will be manufacturers going forward who oblige this desire. Volvo--are you listening?
Categories: Automotive
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