My Left Foot (...and Why High Performance Cars and AV Are the Same)

I am shopping for a new car. For me, a car is more than basic transportation. In fact, getting from point A to point B is far down on my list. For example, I would gladly trade a practical item such as a spare tire in return for a bit more performance. Things like cargo capacity and riding comfort are unimportant, while horsepower and 0-to-60 times are critical. I’ve always appreciated slick audio/video gear. Same thing with cars.

One of my biggest car-buying decisions is manual versus automatic transmission. Over the years, every single car I’ve purchased has been a stick shift. For me, a stick is an integral part of the driving experience. It makes me feel like I’m a part of the machine, instead of just an operator. Stick shifting requires some skill, and expert heel-and-toe work requires considerable skill. Traditionally, real performance cars—drivers’ cars—had manual transmissions. Automatics were for everyone else.

That has changed. While most automatics are just slushboxes, many performance cars now have automatics that are far from slushy. For example, the Porsche Doppelkupplung transmission, known as PDK, is an automatic, but it’s thoroughly modern. It has two electrohydraulic clutches, one for even gears and one for odd. While in any gear, the transmission has already preselected the next gear, and the shifts are nearly instantaneous. The computer with its two clutches is far faster than any human with one clutch. Acceleration is quicker; on a twisty course, you have two hands on the wheel, not one; PDK even yields better fuel economy than Porsche’s brilliant seven-speed stick. And there is my dilemma. Stick shifting may be sentimentally preferable, but transmissions like PDK perform better.

Cool versus new. It’s the same as in audio/video. How many of you only bought manual turntables, instead of record changers? Manual turntables were for individuals who appreciated music playback; changers were for everyone else. Similarly, you stuck with vacuum tube amplifiers long after solid state showed its worth. You might still be sticking with records. You set your home theater levels and delays by hand, rather than use auto setup. You insist on calibrating your TV yourself, rather than rely on a preset. You like a hands-on approach.

Anyone can press a menu button and cause bits to convert into sound. But how many people gently take the record from its dust jacket, being careful not to touch the grooves, wipe the surface of the record, and place it on the turntable platter, carefully brush off the stylus, start the machine’s motor, and lightly place the stylus in the groove? Without question, that ritual is vitally important; it shows that you are a true enthusiast, a purist.

When I buy a new car, will I choose manual or automatic? Ferrari and Jaguar no longer offer sticks. The Porsche 911 GT3, which Edmunds calls “the baddest Porsche on the block,” only comes with PDK. Fewer than 4 percent of new cars sold in the U.S. have stick shift. Old guys might argue that sticks are more fun to drive, but younger drivers, who rarely see a stick, much less learn to drive one proficiently, often don’t think twice about getting an automatic. In a few years, manual transmissions will probably disappear altogether.

In my brain, I know that an automatic transmission is superior. By all technical metrics, an automatic like PDK would give me the absolutely best-performing car. But in my heart, I still want a stick shift. Sticks have given me decades of pleasurable and exciting driving. But should I allow my choice to be driven by nostalgia? A clutch pedal—isn’t that just old-fashioned?

So, will I buy stick or automatic? Old-school or modern? Honestly, I haven’t decided yet. And although my listening room has servers and menus and lots of algorithms and countless data bits, the turntable isn’t going anywhere.

Old Ben's picture

I've been driving a stick from age 16 on. Like you, driving is more than getting from point A to point B for me and driving a manual is part of that.

I partially "get" why Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini, Jaguar, etc. have moved away from a stick. In some instances, like Jaguar, I would imagine the take rate for a stick would be so low (perhaps fewer than 100 cars per year?) that it simply isn't economically feasible to design for a manual. However, I've never bought into the Porsche GT3 argument that they only offer the PDK in that car because it's faster. Granted, the GT3 is primarily a track day car. However, lap times aren't the end all, be all. If that were so, then anyone racing a Mini or a Miata should give up because they don't have a GT3. For that matter, anyone driving a GT3 should just give up because they don't have a track-prepped Ferrari 458 or a LaFerrari. If I were ever in the market for a track car, I would still want a manual transmission even if it was a few tenths slower than the automatic version of the car. I cannot imagine clicking a flappy paddle for a downshift to ever equal the satisfaction of a well-executed heel-toe downshift.

John Sully's picture

Not only is it technically superior, but in my experience trying to heel-toe into a tight turn on a mountain road is tricky as hell. You really have your hands full. Just run the PDK in manual mode. You could even take the high-end route and have a fake clutch pedal installed which does nothing :-).

Old Ben's picture

Heel-toe shifting is tricky. It's something I've been working on for over 22 years of driving and still don't have it done perfectly. Will I ever? I don't know. The fact that I might be able to negotiate a series of turns a few tenths faster with a PDK or automatic transmission doesn't sway my decision to stick with the manual.

Another thing I meant to include in my first post - I understand that PDK transmissions are very expensive to maintain. Like a traditional manual, the PDK has clutches, which are wear items. However, the PDK has two clutches and a pretty complicated mechanism to operate them. I've heard that the costs for maintenance on them can be a bit eye watering.

canman4pm's picture

Yes, but if you can afford a 911 GT3...

trynberg's picture

Yes, because letting a computer do all the work is more fun... they've already stripped a lot of the personality from cars. Getting a stick makes the car more involving and more rewarding to drive quickly.

Electric Ears's picture

I almost always had a stick shift in the cars I've owned, in fact there should be laws against "automatic" transmissions simply because it makes driving too easy and then people get so bored while "driving", OPERATING really, that it's a HUGE reason there is so many people f**king with _____ or whatever and rarely looking out the windshield!! It's MUCH harder to text, dial & talk, surf the web, etc. and manually shift to keep the car in motion! All the other idiot "drivers" have gotten so bad that after one of them totalled my last real car, I used the insurance money for finishing one of my home projects and now manually shift a bicycle to get around.

bostonbarry's picture

My wife and I just bought 2 new cars both with sticks, replacing our 11 and 13 year old sticks. Our daughter had to learn on a stick (much to her dismay!). While auto trannys have come a long way and may in fact do a better job if you're interested in 0-60, driving a stick is really driving. You have to pay more attention, be more aware of what's going on - and I still think it's more fun! It would be interesting to see if there is any correlation between stick shifts and accident rates. Anyway, go with the stick - it may be the last one you can get unfortunately.

Tango131's picture

No question. As the pic of the 7spd shown in your article is that of a 991 nine eleven, Just get new 911 GTS. Or better yet get a 997.2 (2011-12) GTS. Stick of course. And drive it once in a while on a track. They are made for it. You will not be disapointed. I guarantee it.

Langood's picture

Gentlemen May I suggest you learn LEFT FOOT BRAKING. To go with the paddle shifters, if you wish to continue to use you left foot with the new double cluthchers.

This way you threshold brake with your left foot while keeping you right in the throttle two hands on the wheel and you just blip the paddles up and down though the corners. YOWZA, YOWZA, YOWZA.

If you get it right come back and post here.

FireFold's picture

For me, it's always about convenience rather than old school versus modern. Someone else said that automatic transmissions allow drivers to be lazy, but it also allows them to concentrate more on the road than on shifting.'s picture

Hi Ken,
My wife and I both have driven manuals for many years. I guess I had a jet lagged positive response to her request for a DCT on a M3 last week, and after one week and 440 miles I am both in awe, and totally bored. In M mode the DCT is certainly instant and correct in gear selection, and downshifts are perfect - but I feel like an observer and a passenger.
I just ordered a mid engine 10 cylinder manual for myself - while I still can - that option goes away in two months - you should buy another manual while you still can - the number of fun machines we can buy with "analog" shifting is shrinking rapidly.
If I was on the track I would not be buying manuals - but for a road car the high touch involvement of a manual is what I thrive on - if you go high tech you will be fast - and will regret it.

dr haboob's picture

I'm young, and also like fast cars and high end AV. In 2012, I bought a M5 at launch with a stick. Love it. Feel connected. Drive it every day without any regrets. Looking to get a 2015 Aston Martin Vantage GT which also comes in 6-speed manual transmission. There will always be a faster car out there, especially with the dual motor Teslas and such, but what it comes down to is your experience.

John_Werner's picture

Go with the stick! I've kept my Audi 07 RS4 and 04 S4 simply because they're some of the last high-performance affordable 6-speed affordable cars Audi produced. Now their intrinsic value as pure manuals so far exceeds their market value that, when combined with the paucity of available options for manuals, compounds my pride of ownership. Sadly, Ken, you're right pure manuals are quickly going the way of the Dodo bird.