Like the paperback, or perhaps the vinyl record, the manual transmission has also gone from virtual ubiquity to charming anachronism. While still theoretically available as an option on many sports cars, one need only look at Porsche's recent decision to offer their track-special 911 GT3 with a PDK dual-clutch gearbox only. The definition of “standard” has truly changed.
But Honda, of all brands, is trying to fight off the auto-box tide. A mainstream brand with mainstream concerns, Honda seems to be rediscovering its performance heritage. For the company’s Canada division, this renaissance takes the form of a multi-city driving event, the Honda ManualDriving Challenge.
The premise is simple. Honda is touring major city centres of Canada – Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto – with a fleet of stick-shift coupes and a team of skilled drivers and instructors. At each stop, a challenge is issued to local media: come learn to drive a manual transmission. Experienced rowers are encouraged to bring either a shifting neophyte or someone who has given up driving a manual transmission years ago.
In Vancouver, writers arrived on a wet weekday morning to find a repurposed parking lot flecked with orange cones. Several all-black or all-white Honda Factory Performance (HFP) versions of the Accord and Civic coupe were lined up and ready to go.
HFP upgrades include stiffened and lowered suspension, stickier tires on larger-diameter wheels and subtle aerodynamic enhancements. The resulting machines are the sportiest vehicles in the Honda stable since the venerable S2000 roadster took its curtain call.
When the previous-generation Civic, ordinarily considered above reproach, was lambasted by critics in 2011 and 2012, some feared that Honda had lost its way. Originally a builder of small, economical machines, Honda was known for cars that were almost universally fun to drive – hits such as the CRX or circa-1980s Prelude come readily to mind. Founder Soichiro Honda always had a passion for motorsport, and a little of that passion trickled down to even the most humdrum Honda econobox. With the all-new Accord and refreshed Civic helping bring the company back into enthusiasts’ good graces, there is a palpable sense of Honda embracing this joyful inheritance.
The automaker brought two ex-racers for teaching duties: Daniel Morad is a former GP3 racer and Karting champion; Jeff Boyce, an experienced instructor and one-time Formula Atlantic driver.
The group was split between those who drove manual transmission occasionally and those who had either never operated a clutch, or hadn't done so in decades. While the advanced group followed Boyce to learn shift points on the twistier half of the course, the beginners learned the basics under the tutelage of Morad.
Both the Accord and Civic have sizeable engines – the Accord a 3.5-litre 278-horsepower V6 and the Civic a 2.4-litre, 201hp four-cylinder – and thus offer considerable low-end torque. Beginners learn how to feel for the engagement point – the so-called sweet spot – where the flywheel and clutch first make contact, making sure to keep their right feet far from the accelerator.
After a few cautious rolling starts, all were soon mastering stop-and-go exercises and upshifting. An advantage of front-wheel-drive cars like these, aside from enhanced traction in the wet, is a compact drivetrain with little power loss. The Civic was clearly the nimbler of the two, but the Accord HFP had no issue pulling away smoothly with its considerable V6 power.
As a bookend to the day, both Morad and Boyce demonstrated the proper way to row through the gearbox, offering hot laps of an expanded course in the Civics. Eyes widened to the characteristic soundtrack of high-revving Honda engines as the cars hurtled through the chicanes, a just-clipped cone spinning up into the air and bouncing over the tarmac.
Honda is not necessarily looking for converts; they know they will continue to sell around 80% of their vehicles with automatic transmissions – which is still considerably higher than the industry-wide take rate for manuals in the US and Canada, which has languished around 7%. However, even as pundits write the last eulogy for the manual gearbox, there will clearly always be a market – however self-selecting it may be – for the three-pedal waltz.