Updated: Apr 30, 2021
There are a lot of transmission options out there nowadays, from stickshift, to an eight-speed auto, dual clutch, CVT, or even direct drive. In the hearts of enthusiasts and collectors, however, the old three-pedal manual still rules. The values of manual Ferraris and Porsches show this to be the case, with stickshift cars fetching almost double the price of their auto counterparts. So, why is this the case? What makes the "row your own gear" experience that much better?
The simplest answer is that up until this past decade, automated transmissions have been pretty uniformly terrible in performance applications. Mediocre at best. Until dual clutch transmissions hit the mainstream, your choices were between a lethargic "slushbox" torque converter auto, or a single clutch semi-manual gearbox like those featured in BMWs and Ferraris of the 2000s.
Torque converter transmissions until very recently felt about the same whether they were put into a Prius or a Porsche. Never really shifting when you want them to, and hanging for a couple seconds in between gears. It's an experience more suited to a work van than a sports car. This was reflected by the "Tiptronic" auto Porsches always being a second behind their manual versions in acceleration. Once the PDK dual clutch went into the 997, and produced equal performance to the stickshift model, they buried the Tiptronic option and never looked back.
Meanwhile, automated single clutch transmissions feel pretty similar to a manual while driving, except a computer has decided to sloppily shift gears for you. This deprives the driver of the full experience, while giving back a clunky feel and putting undue wear on the clutch. This wear will make shifting feel worse over time and wrack up repair bills for the owner. The one neat thing about these semi-manual boxes is that custom shops can fairly easily install a clutch pedal and H-pattern shifter in their rightful places, and convert the cars to full manual. Some garages have taken to doing this on the millennial era of BMWs and Ferraris to increase the cars' value.
So, we've talked smack on other types of transmissions, but what is it that actually makes the three-pedal manual superior? In one word, it's the simplicity of it. Manual transmission design was more or less perfected when syncromesh gears came out 70 years ago. Once you've had practice shifting gears, you can hop out of a "four on the floor" Chevelle and into a modern six-speed Cayman with relative ease. The age and the simplicity of this design also brings an extra degree of reliability. If you treat it right, a manual gearbox will easily last the life of a car. Clutches and shifter bushings wear out over many miles, but can usually be replaced in a matter of hours.
The speed and effectiveness of manual shifting also relies heavily on driver finesse and reaction time, while automated transmissions either need computers or old school clockwork to do the job. This makes autoboxes age incredibly fast, as a state-of-the-art computer in 2003 will always be pathetic by 2021 standards. For this reason, manual transmissions can be described as future-proof. A well-built and properly maintained stickshift will feel as good in 2021 as it did in 2003, and will probably be just as good in 2050. Modern dual clutch and eight-speed torque converter transmissions certainly feel like the peak of auto gearbox design, and can even match or surpass manuals in acceleration, but the next mechanical generation might leave those in the dust, too.
The most important reason manuals hold their value so much better might just be that they're plain fun to drive. As dumb as it may seem, there's just something so enjoyable about pushing a gear lever back and forth while practicing heel-toe footwork. Flicking a paddle shifter is just so digital by comparison, like clicking a mouse. Auto transmissions can continue to get faster and more efficient, but they can never quite replicate the connected feeling of a manual box. Just like digital music and photography are fated to be almost-as-good as their analog versions, just falling short of the peak. It's for these reasons that manual transmissions will never truly die off, and will continue to be sought after on the collector market.
Speaking of which, The Starting Line happens to have a brand new 2021 Porsche Cayman GT4 available for sale, with a six-speed manual and naturally aspirated 4.0 liter flat six. Click the link to read the featured post on that specialty car.