Nik Kantar

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Manuals Matter

I wrote some words mostly as an excuse to also post a photo and a video.

blue 2018 Subaru BRZ at night

I do hope you’ll both read my words and watch Mr. Catchpole’s video below. However, if you only want to do one of those two things, watch his video and you’ll be visually and aurally rewarded as well.

I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience a number of good manuals in attainable cars. I say “attainable” because the most expensive one cost $35,000, which is merely a decently optioned Camry in 2023. I’ve spent time with an early 2000s Civic, MkV GTI, E46 ZHP, NB Miata, late 2000s Euro Civic, gen 1 BRZ, and 996 Carrera. No fancy recent Porsches, gated shifter Ferraris, or anything else similarly exotic.

I remember some of these shifters well, by far mostly the two I owned: Miata and BRZ. The former was buttery smooth and comfortable, a pleasure to slot into gear under any circumstances. The latter was more mechanical and forceful, befitting the eagerness of the whole car. The Civic’s shifter felt second-nature almost instantly, the GTI’s effortless, the BMW’s downright luxurious, and the 996’s was serious business. Each was an experience unto itself, and such an integral part of the car’s personality.

I’ve also been fortunate to have had the opportunity to drive a 991 GT3 with perhaps the best paddles in the world, Porsche’s PDK. While there’s no denying that its blisteringly fast shifts are effective, they lack personality. I can tell you about the throttle and steering of the car—both brilliant—but have no memory of the gear changes or gearbox. I could’ve left it in auto and I’m not sure it would’ve made much difference. Not compared to a manual, anyway.

The Miata was the car that truly taught me how to drive a manual in our nine months together. As I got somewhat used to it, I noticed something unexpected: I’d started truly treasuring the first 1–2 shift in the morning, which came as I pulled out of the garage. I had a similar experience with the BRZ. The cars were so weightless they immediately reminded me if I handled them clumsily, but rewarded smoothly supplied inputs. There was something extremely satisfying about getting it right.

There’s nothing rewarding about pulling a plastic paddle. The GT3 didn’t really care when I shifted and into what gear—that car was so solidly overbuilt it could cope with being in the wrong gear more than is reasonable. The Carrera, though, very much did want me to get it right, lest it stutter or sputter. I had to listen to the car and feel the vibrations building with revs; I had to be aware of what was going on. It was just so much more of an experience, even though it was merely a short drive on a populated stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, while the newer car I got to push in the safe environment of Fontana Speedway.

I suppose it’s fair that I feel this way when I have a favorite gear shift, and I feel pretty good about having that in common with Mr. Catchpole. You should try it, too.


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