Does the manual gearbox still have a place?

Guy Jenner

Aston Martin is one of the few sports car manufacturers to offer a manual transmission. Undoubtedly, the trend over the last 20 years has been for buyers to gravitate more and more towards an automated transmission.

There is no doubt that there are many gearbox options that work very well as alternatives to shifting gears yourself. The traditional torque converter auto has come a long way since the days of the optional 3 speed Borg Warner box available on the DB5. In those days, the convenience of an automatic meant noticeably reduced performance, higher fuel consumption and slow, ponderous gear changes. It was a real commitment to go auto.

Fast forward around 60 years and the modern 8 speed ZF unit fitted to most of the Aston Martin range is compact, very strong, light and with well managed ratios it can provide better acceleration than a manual, super-fast shifts with an extra set of higher gears to provide a higher top speed and more economical, quieter cruising. In fact, the sort of motorway mpg figures you can get out of a modern Aston Martin are nothing short of remarkable.

There was also the much misunderstood Sportshift gearbox fitted in the previous generation’s cars. A single clutch, automated manual, it absolutely isn’t a full automatic but it is lighter that a dual clutch set up and far more fun. It is a gearbox that really needs to be driven on the paddles to execute smooth and fast shifts. It also requires interaction with the throttle to get the best out of it. This makes it more involving than an automatic but they are a bit lumpy at low speeds and during general parking manoeuvres. Definitely not a gearbox to count out and worth driving properly before making a judgement. Many love them.

And so we might even see dual clutch transmissions at Aston Martin in the future. I suspect all options are being considered by the new leadership team. Whilst they are certainly heavier than both the ZF auto and the Sportshift units, they do give a remarkably fast shift speed. In chasing the ultimate performance stats or lap times, these fractions of a second count.

Which takes us back to the manual gearbox. They are not superior to any of the previously mentioned gearboxes in any measurable way. They take extra time and thought with constant attention required on any journey. They will always be slower to shift than almost any modern automated gearbox yet there is a dedicated section of the car community that still absolutely love them.

Aston Martin still fit a 7 speed manual gearbox to the Vantage. It is a dog leg configuration that has a tight, intricate gate. This is not a car you jump in and master in the first 5 miles. But then, that is the point. The attraction of manuals is that extra layer of interaction, nailing that seamless change, perfecting that heel and toe downshift. It all makes the experience high effort and high reward.

Aston Martin have put a lot of time and effort into the gearbox themselves. They have made sure the pedals are perfectly placed whilst changing the brake pedal modulation to make it easier to blip the throttle on down changes whilst leaning on the brakes. If you don’t feel like doing your own rev-matching, press a button and the AM shift system will not only execute perfect blips of the throttle on down changes but allows full throttle upshifts. The sound is amazing.