We break down the available sports car transmission choices and explain the benefits and drawbacks of each type.
If you think we are advocating for the end to the stick shift, keep reading. Manual transmissions are the ideal choice for many sports car owners, but there are new choices that have their merits. We’ll break down the choices so you can decide what works best for you.
Manual transmissions are endangered, but automakers are adapting so that they can still offer them in cars in which they make sense. Despite the fact that manuals are slowly going away in mainstream cars, the most popular compact sedan, the Toyota Corolla can still be bought new with a manual. Oddly, it is the sporty cars at Lexus and Toyota that have lost their sticks. In what world does a stick make sense in a Corolla, but not the mighty RC F rear-drive sports coupe? We will explain that below.
Stick shifts are the ultimate in involvement and there are at least ten good reasons to own one. Drivers love them because they require that one be intimately involved in the mechanical process that moves the car. On small sports cars with rear wheel drive, like a Mazda Miata, they are a blast to operate.
In addition to the thrill of moving up through the gears near redline, one can also “drag” the car into a corner in a gear which the engine helps to brake the car or even help to rotate the car when done properly. Then, exiting the corner, the driver is in the torque band and can floor the gas for full, immediate power. These are just examples. A stick shift brings joy when driving fast. On the other hand, when driving in heavy traffic stick shifts are horrible. They are simply a hassle and bring on fatigue and frustration.
Automakers have tried to save the sticks two ways. First, they now offer rev-matching downshifts. Nissan started this idea with its 370Z . The manual transmission matches the revs while you downshift and brake hard into a corner so that you don’t have to “heel-toe.” (See above video if heel-toe is new to you) It works great, and cars like the Corvette now offer this. If you wish to heel-toe your car, they all have an off button.
The next thing automakers did was to bridge the fuel economy gap by offering more gears. It may sound backwards to those that remember the bad old days, but today’s automatic transmissions are far more efficient than manuals. Thus, seven speed manual transmissions like that in the Corvette are not uncommon and six speeds are the default. None of those gears above four are of any use than driving in a sporty fashion, but they are great on the highway. These life-saving measures have helped sticks to survive, but manuals are going away.
Dual-clutch transmissions, or DCTs, have become the defacto standard on all German and Italian sports cars. The advantages of a DCT are speed and involvement, but with a way to drive in traffic withoug the hassles of shifting. DCTs can be placed into “Drive” and operate as automatics, which is why they are popular now in sports sedans and luxury sporty coupes. What they offer sports car buyers are faster shifts than a human can perform (both up and down) and also the ability to control the gear selection using paddle shifters or the console-mounted gear selector.
The most famous DCT in the sports car world is the Porsche doppelkupplung (PDK). This transmission has one feature no other transmission does. It enables you to say to people you meet at parties, “I’d like to take you out to the parking lot and show you my doppelkupplung.” It never gets old.
Automakers like the efficiency of DCTs and they were about to take over the sporty-car world when the next transmission type on our list made a big comeback.
The good old slushbox is undergoing a resurgence of popularity in sports cars. The reasons are simple; Torque-converter transmissions can now match the speed and involvement of DCTs, while being more driver-friendly in parking and stop and go situations. Plus, they are lighter than DCTs in general. General Motors just announced a new 10-speed automatic for its performance vehicles and hyped its ability to shift faster than the Porsche PDK. Automatic transmissions can also be programmed to respond well on a racetrack as our video below demonstrates.
Cars like the Lexus RC F and BMW M4 will downshift automatically at exactly the right time on a racetrack so that power is available coming out of the turn. This does not lessen the excitement.
While we would not go so far as to say a constantly variable transmission (CVT) makes sense in a sports car, we will report that they are showing up in some – as options. Subaru went first putting a CVT in its WRX sports sedan. CVTs are automatics that have no actual gears. In sporty cars, automakers can program them to behave like a car with gears.
No right-minded sports car fan is interested in a CVT yet, but the future may hold some surprises. After all, the 2015 Corvette is faster with an automatic than with a stick and speed matters to sports car buyers. Cars with manuals are starting be noticeable slower than cars with automatic transmissions.
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