Lexus could save the stick shift for EVs, if drivers are willing to pretend
The manual transmission, once a staple of base trim economy cars and high-end sports cars alike, has been in decline for years now. But for a small and shrinking group of drivers, the answer to that is “from my cold, dead hands.”
So manual gearbox purists will be delighted to know that a highly unusual suspect, Lexus, is apparently working on a “virtual” manual to find out if the stick shift can survive the electric revolution. But is it too little, too late for the stick?
Is it too little, too late for the stick?
British car enthusiast publication Evo reported this week that Lexus, which now leads Toyota’s high-performance EV efforts, is developing a kind of shifting system that mimics the feel of a clutch and a stick shift in an electric car. Of course, it comes without the traditional mechanical connections for such a transmission because an EV doesn’t need those things, but it mimics the motions involved with three-pedal driving. The company has even been showing it off on a special version of the Lexus UX 300e, an electric crossover not sold in the US.
Evo reports the “transmission” has an unconnected gear stick and clutch coupled to the electric powertrain, with fake internal combustion sounds and software that augments the electric torque output. In other words, it’s a full-on pretend manual in an EV, complete with the “vroom vroom” sounds. Even Road & Track was quick to call the setup “fake.”
If this sounds remarkably silly, that’s because it is — but it goes about being silly in a clever way. And it represents an engineer’s response to the anxiety some performance-obsessed drivers feel over the increasing likelihood of the manual gearbox dying out.
That’s a trend that’s been happening for years, although the auto industry’s wide-scale transition toward EVs is shifting it into overdrive.
If this sounds remarkably silly, that’s because it is
For decades, the manual (once known as the “standard transmission”) was the cheaper transmission for cars, leaving fancy, high-tech automatic gearboxes for those willing to pay extra. The manual is even still pervasive in some new car markets, like Europe and South America. They often got better fuel economy than automatics, too. But in the US, with our traffic-choked cities, lack of public transit options, wide open highways, and love of road-tripping, the automatic soon became the preference of mainstream drivers. Automatics eventually reached cost parity with manuals, leading to them no longer being offered on most models at all.
That was for mainstream cars; a large majority of traditional car enthusiasts preferred manuals, especially on performance-focused cars, for their increased degree of control over the vehicle. And there’s an elitist aspect to their appeal, too. There’s something special about having a skill most other Americans don’t have, being able to operate a vehicle that most people cannot. (If car enthusiasts are good at anything, it’s finding ways to feel morally superior over everyone else.)
Plus, automatic transmission technology just got better over the years. A modern eight-speed transmission from the German company ZF is light-years beyond the sluggish four-speed automatics people were driving in the 1990s. That gearbox is so good, it’s used in dozens of luxury cars across multiple brands.
A large majority of traditional car enthusiasts preferred manuals
Even the performance brands, eager to boast about quicker lap times, moved away from the traditional manual for quicker-shifting options like Formula One-style paddle shifters and dual-clutch gearboxes. Ferrari, for example, hasn’t even made a manual transmission car in more than a decade now. Porsche still manufactures manual transmissions, but it also makes a world-class dual-clutch option at no extra cost, so only about 25 percent of 911 buyers opt for the stick, according to a recent report by Autoweek. That number goes higher with some of the more exclusive high-performance models. And on super high-tech cars like the current BMW M3, a manual option feels almost redundant amid the ultra-digital, computerized… well, everything else.
Then we get to electric vehicles. Electric motors put out so much torque that multiple gears generally aren’t necessary for forward motion at different speeds. And while modern ICE transmissions can have nine or even 10 gears to maximize fuel economy, that clearly doesn’t matter in the electric world.
The electric Porsche Taycan is a rare exception, but it has two gears, and that wouldn’t be terribly fun to operate with a clutch pedal.
Electric motors put out so much torque that multiple gears generally aren’t necessary
(For the record, I drove an electric car with a manual transmission before — an EV retrofitted classic Mini. The manual transmission was left in place after the engine was swapped for batteries but connected to an electric motor. Shifting itself wasn’t really necessary; the car would move at just about any required speed in second gear, and the clutch wasn’t needed at all. It was weird! I kept shifting into neutral at stoplights out of habit thanks to two decades of muscle memory, but I really didn’t have to.)
So it’s easy to see why the manual gearbox, essentially now an anachronistic technology not suited for the probable future of driving, is on the way out. But it’s also easy to see why a company like Lexus is willing to research ways to keep them alive, especially if high-end buyers are willing to pay for it.
(As a side note, Lexus is an odd company to take this on; with a few small exceptions like the IS sport sedan, it’s not really known for great manuals the way BMW, Porsche, Honda, and others are.)
While most drivers in the EV revolution won’t miss driving stick — and even the most diehard enthusiast will admit being stuck in traffic with three pedals is no picnic — maybe there’s hope after all. It’s just likely going to involve a lot of pretending. That’s proving to be true with other key features of internal combustion engines that purists love. If the final production car is like the concept, then the Dodge Charger EV could pack a fake engine noise — and a very loud one at that.
If this electric transformation really happens, being an enthusiast in the future could mean paying big bucks to simulate the things that got lost along the way.