They said vinyl was dead, then that made a subtle comeback; then print was supposedly a goner, and we all know that’s not true. And for decades now, the automotive community has been taunting similar musings of the manual transmission’s impending extinction. Though its numbers have dwindled since the introduction of the mass-market automatic transmission in the mid-20th century, the manual hasn’t gone the way of the dodo just yet. It has simply made a new home in a niche market: enthusiasts and sports cars. While PDK, DSG and other dual-clutch transmissions do the same job of changing gears that a stick and third pedal do — and they do it faster than humanly possible — the old ways of analog driving can exist alongside the newer, increasingly quicker and more efficient tech. Both are relevant, and both serve a purpose.
Out on the track — where every tenth of a second matters, winning manufacturers are immortalized on race day, and track-day lap times earn hallowed bragging rights — manufacturers will do all they can to one-up the competition. It’s essentially an international performance pissing contest, and it’s why Ferrari, Lamborghini and McLaren don’t even offer a stick shift option anymore. They’re all in pursuit of being the quickest every day of the week. So it made sense that when the 2015 911 GT3 RS was announced — Porsche’s quickest and most track-focused 911 to date — the company revealed it’d be the first RS not to be equipped with the extra pedal. There was outcry from the Porsche faithful, asking why the “purist’s 911” was going the PDK-only route. Andreas Preuninger, head of Porsche’s motorsport and GT program, defended the switch, describing the GT3 RS as their “track-day special, the hero of the track days.” He continued on, “If you look at the Nurburgring Nordschleife public track days, 70 percent, no lie, are 911s. And most of them are RS’s.” Porsche is in pursuit of the all-important lowest lap time.
Circling Road Atlanta in the 2015 GT3 RS in the torrential rain, even as a self-professed enthusiast I was glad the 475 horsepower rear-mounted engine was bolted to Porsche’s PDK gearbox. I would never come close to what the best drivers in the world can abstract from this car, but in the rain, around a track I had never been to, in a high-strung road-legal race car I had never driven, I needed all the focus I could muster. All I had to worry about was hitting my braking points, staying on line and feeling for what the car was doing underneath me. Not having to focus on clutching and finding gears freed up the extra concentration I needed to set a brisk lap and, crucially, keep the $175,000 car out of the tire wall. The car cornered flat and even, quickly reached triple-digit speeds on the back straight, and the aero features bolted the RS to the track, shrugging off standing water and entering braking zones as if the pavement were bone dry.
Engine: 4.0-liter flat-six
Transmission: seven-speed PDK
Torque: 338 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 3.1 seconds
Top Speed: 193 mph
But that’s track driving. On back roads, where lap times count for nothing but spirited driving still calls for performance, paddle shifters seem to take away from the visceral experience. It’s what enthusiasts love: being in total control of what the car is doing and how it’s working, knowing you’re a part of why the car is driving as quick as it is. And Porsche has an answer for that too, in the manual-only Cayman GT4, a car Preuninger said Porsche fans have been craving. “There has been a demand on the market for a high-performance Cayman. We had customers converting Cayman S’s and doing all kinds of things to them, so we thought, ‘we have to do this right.'” But if “high performance” is what the aim was, why not put the quick-shifting PDK in the GT4? “Although it’s from the same stable, the GT4 is a different breed. It’s very competent on the track, but it’s a high-performing fun car as well. The additional involvement of the clutch is something our customers have longed for.” Preuninger goes on to say the GT4 was built to “address the purists,” or drivers who crave high performance, but appreciate the visceral input. And in the GT4, Porsche have built a shining example.
Engine: 3.8-liter flat-six
Transmission: six-speed Manual
Torque: 309 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 4.2 seconds
Top Speed: 183 mph
After a few laps in the GT3 RS, I switched over to the GT4. Dropping down into the driver’s seat and strapping in, immediately the GT4 felt just as focused as the RS, but in the Cayman, I got a better sense that I’m working with the car, not just telling it what to do. Where the RS may give a quicker lap with higher speeds, the GT4 is more rewarding. The clutch is weighted perfectly and the shifts are short, direct, organic. Getting on the power down Road Atlanta’s back straight, grabbing each gear actually felt as if I was reaching down into the transmission tunnel and slamming each one home by hand. Changing up was like a firm handshake from an old friend, with a pat on the back from the torque.
“If somebody is looking for a car that is as fast as possible on the track and is competing, the PDK is faster and makes sense,” said Preuninger. But for the purist, who occasionally drives on the track but likes to enjoy winding country roads and working with the car, the manual offers that extra involvement. You can’t shy way from that fact.” When it comes to performance cars and cars that are fun to drive, it comes down to what job you’re asking of your car. Cars like the Cayman, Mazda Miata and Lotus Elise are all fun, light sports cars with manual transmissions. They have addictive performance and are capable on track, but also reward you on the road for putting in the work. Still, they won’t get you to the top of the lap board, and that’s not their mission. That is best left to the Ferrari’s and McLarens, and the Porsche GT3 RS and its paddle shifters. Both types have their merits, both serve their purpose, and both have a place in the enthusiast’s heart.