Manual vs Automatic: The Performance Debate

2014-shelby-mustang-gt-sc-gear-shifterAs technology has continually advanced the automotive industry, countless changes have transformed the car itself. From safety to performance and virtually every other aspect, the evolution has been incredible. However, this has caused a few features beloved by enthusiasts to become increasingly rare. Chief among them is the manual gearbox.

An astonishingly few number of cars sold in the U.S. have do-it-yourself transmissions. In fact, out of 265 new car models offered in America, a mere 50 of them have a third pedal available, or about 20 percent. The percentage of new cars actually ordered with a stick is well within the single digits.  The reason? Consumers want automatics. When all is said and done, auto manufacturers exist to make money. Why spend a fortune developing multiple transmission options when all buyers want is one?

That is the reason a startling number of brands no long offer any cars with a stick. The list includes legendary performance names like Ferrari and Lamborghini. Even Porsche’s ultra-hardcore, driver focused 911 GT3 and GT3 RS no longer provide a clutch pedal, even as an option. Luckily, when it comes to muscle cars, there are still rays of hope.

The question becomes, if you’re in the market for a new muscle car, which transmission should you spec? Traditional logic implies most performance enthusiasts would immediately check the box next to “manual.” Yet, clearly that isn’t the case. To get started, here are all of the muscle cars you can purchase with a manual or automatic:

  • Chevrolet Camaro
  • Chevrolet Corvette
  • Chevrolet Super Sport
  • Dodge Challenger
  • Dodge Viper
  • Ford Mustang

And that’s it. So we’re not exactly spoiled for choice, but those are still pretty interesting options. The first order of business in making the decision is what you want out of a car. Obviously a manual requires more effort and alertness than an auto. If you’ve never driven one before, expect the first week or so to be a learning experience. The good news is, like riding a bike, once you figure it out the skill remains regardless of time.

Beyond rush hour becoming (more) unpleasant and b-roads transitioning into heaven on earth, switching to a tradition gearbox also has performance implications. Some cars, like the 2015 Ford Mustang, retain identical 0-60 times regardless of transmission. However, while an auto can come close to repeating the same 4.5 second run each time, the manual truly depends on the driver. For other cars, like the 2015 Corvette Z06, the auto will always be faster, hitting 60 in 2.95 seconds versus 3.2 for the seven speed manual.

To be fair, the case is sometimes reversed. Although not exactly a muscle car, one of the most eye opening cases of a manual being faster is the 2014 Subaru BRZ. The manual leaves the auto for dead, arriving to 60 mph over 1.2 seconds faster. Step into a Challenger Hellcat and the case reverses, with the auto three-tenths sooner than the manual to 60. Which option is quickest ultimately comes down to each specific model. If outright speed is your goal, be sure to check out the manufacturer’s performance figures before spec’ing the transmission.

It is also wise to consider any aftermarket goals. Upgrading a manual transmission is typically pretty straightforward (for example, installing a short throw shift kit). Things can become more complex with an auto, generally requiring tuning a vehicle’s ECU along with any upgraded hardware. It may seem like a small difference, for some it is, but either way it’s worth keeping in mind.

No matter which option you choose, both have their ups and downs. If rush hour in L.A. on the I-5 is a daily occurrence, the astonishing number of times you’ll go from first to second back to first may grow tiring. However, when you break free on your favorite back road, few things in life can compare with having a great car, perfectly executing heel-toe downshifts and letting the rpm’s fly. You can probably guess which gearbox we’d recommend.

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Photo credit: Motor Trend Magazine

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