A manual transmission for a back-to-basics, honest-to- goodness sports car always sounds like a good idea.
But in the case of the new Mazda MX-5, the manual does not increase the fun quotient significantly. It is not that the six-speed stick shift is bad, but that the automatic version is just so good.
The automatic also sounds better, especially with the roof down. The manual's aural appeal is marred by a raspy transmission noise.
The only thing that the DIY gearbox delivers convincingly is superior performance. If your hand-foot coordination is well honed, you can nail the century sprint in 7.3 seconds in the manual - 0.7 seconds less than the automatic.
Top speed is 214kmh, versus the auto's 198kmh.
Driven hard, the manual is more rewarding. Its short-throw shift lever is slick and unambiguous, allowing you to move from one ratio to another without fuss - even if it is from sixth to second.
SPECS/MAZDA MX-5 (MANUAL)
Price: $160,888 with COE
Engine: 1,998cc 16-valve inline-4
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Power: 158bhp at 6,000rpm
Torque: 200Nm at 4,600rpm
0-100kmh: 7.3 seconds
Top speed: 214kmh
Fuel consumption: 6.7 litres/ 100km
Agent: Trans Eurokars Mazda
All three pedals are quite close together. Or they seem that way because the last time I drove a manual was when the Spice Girls were still together.
Folks who like manuals will certainly be swayed. The MX-5's well-weighted clutch and inherent stability allow you to shift to your heart's content.
Those who do not really care for a third pedal will not lose out much in picking the automatic. The six-speed autobox may not be as quick as the manual, but it allows the car to be enjoyed in whatever your brain's own drive mode happens to be in.
While the manual is best when driven hard, it is flexible enough for you to leave it in third gear in most city driving conditions and in sixth when you are on a free-flowing highway. Even in sixth gear, it has enough torque on hand to accelerate relatively effortlessly.
That said, I would have preferred a slightly taller first gear. Its 5.087 ratio (versus 3.538 for the automatic's first cog) makes it unusable beyond crawling pace.
A taller first gear would also give you a bit more time to settle down after merging from a smaller road before shifting to second. Right now, you need to shift almost immediately after turning out.
Do not get me wrong, it is not a big problem. But when you have such a well-sorted automatic as an alternative, the smallest thing counts.
To be honest, after I drove the automatic two weeks ago, I thought a manual would be more fun. As it turns out, I now have a slight preference for the automatic, even if the idea of a stick shift in this hoot of a roadster remains strangely appealing.
Perhaps it has to do with it being $3,000 less costly than the automatic.