Purists may crave a manual gearbox, but are they always right?
What’s the best road car currently on sale? I’d wager that the Rolls Royce Ghost is probably about as good as it gets. It’s quiet, comfortable, rides well, and gets you where you want to be in as relaxing a way as is possible. Probably its greatest strength is its simplicity. It is a machine designed to separate the driver from as much of the mundanity of driving, and let the mechanical serfs do the boring bits like swapping cogs while Sir wonders which Pringle he might entertain the good fellows of Golfington Manor with.
However, this isn’t quite the end of it. For those of us – and I include you, if you’re the sort of person who reads motoring websites which feature both a classic Ferrari and an overused picture of a DeLorean – who really love driving, the act of driving is a means to an end. The destination isn’t important. If you drive a lap of the Nürburgring Nordschleife on a tourist day you don’t go anywhere, you’re just twenty five Euros lighter. You do, however, dive into a world of sensations; pitch and roll, tactile responses to inputs, visual cues, listening for squeaks and rattles, managing the machine that’s giving you this ride, checking the brake feel, the sensation of turn-in, the anticipation of a correction or the feel of a softening tyre.
Part of that sensation can be a manual gear shift. The feeling of a selector moving across rotating gears while managing the clutch position and engine speed is an intoxicating one when it goes right, but is it really required in this day and age?
The F458 is a stunning car… from what I’ve read. Sadly, Drive Cult is not yet on regular rotation with the major manufacturer’s press launches, nor do we pretend otherwise, but from secondhand accounts it’s one of the first to really take race technology and make it useable in a road car. The quick steering means the use of gear paddles becomes feasible, the high-revving engine can therefore make use of lots of shifting between close ratios, and quick shifts make progress quick. Irrespective of how you feel about a H-pattern between the front seats, the twin selectors behind the F1-inspired wheel seem right for that car.
It’s a similar story with the Nissan GT-R. The technology works as a whole, and needs the correct style of input into the system so that all parts which interconnect can understand and respond correctly. For those of us who care about being masters of the machine, though, these are all just layers dampening that control. It’s the difference between sitting in front of a HD broadcast of a performance – in stunning 5.1 surround sound, while in your comfiest chair – and sitting three rows from the front, catching the eye of the performer.
It’s nice to hand over part of that control sometimes. Suspension set to soft, full traction control, auto-settings on the paddle shifter can all make life easier for the driver on occasion, but when driving becomes the sole focus of the pilot and all of those aids and comforts are switched off, it’s all about man and machine.
Until a manufacturer comes up with a cohesive helm that uses the advantages of another shifting method at normal road speeds and gives the driver tactile feedback, I can’t see a simple, light manual gearbox falling out of favour with those who revel in driving.
P.S. Ferrari, if you’re reading this, I’m willing to test my opinions against actual first hand experience if the F458 pool car is ever left unrequired. Throw up the Prancing Horse sign against the night sky, and we’ll be there!