ELLE Australia, September 2018 (PDF)

Automatics may be practical, but there’s something blissfully meditative about a manual car.

It's been hard to avoid "mindfulness" as a concept in recent years (if not, take a moment to enjoy the irony). Eyes up from your phone! Enjoy life’s moments! Get off the grid! An extension of meditation, we’re told to live, eat, think and work with full attention. The pay-off? Better mental health, strengthened communities, awareness of our surroundings and stress reduction. So why then, has this trend not hit one of the activities that arguably requires us to be the most engaged and mindful: driving?

Since their inception, cars have been a force of liberation, authority, attitude, style, attention and even, judging by the way they’ve been communicated and designed, the quasi-erotic. To purists, the relationship between machine and the driver is an act of pleasure: from the sensory feeling of hitting an open road, to the roar of an engine vibrating up through the floor, via a squeeze of the throttle and the downshift of a gear. It’s almost primal. Freedom suggests power, power suggests control, and control begets gratification. Take away that control, and the car becomes a completely different object, one of convenience and not of escape or enjoyment. The difference between driving and being driven is subtle but powerful. It’s for this reason that the argument against the extinction of manual gearboxes has weight.

While each state differs, there’s a trend towards automatic-only licences being issued. In Queensland alone, the number of automatic licences issued between 2007 and 2017 more than doubled. Figures from the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries show just 13 per cent of all passenger cars sold in 2014 had a manual transmission, down from 33 per cent in 2000. Much of this could be down to the availability of automatics to learn on within a family unit, plus millennials may feel that learning to master a manual gearbox isn’t necessary -possibly a throwback to the generation’s collective apathy for older technologies. On a budget note, manual transmissions are usually more affordable and fuel efficient.

Alas, common sense tells us that those who can work a stick are more likely to be better, and therefore safer, drivers. And here’s where that mindfulness argument kicks in – driving a manual requires alertness and connectivity with your car, it requires you to be engaged
with your surroundings, traffic speed and road surface. It’s an act of intimacy, vigilance and skill; knowing how to move through gears to manipulate speed, how to rev match (that’s smoothly downshifting gears), getting to know each and every shift can not only help you to understand your car, but get you out of sticky situations.

But back to the sensory... Since manuals are the preference of enthusiasts, you’ll find that it’s the most fun, zippy cars on the road that are still available as manuals – from the Hyundai i30 to the Suzuki Swift, Abarth 124 Spider and the Fiat 500. And then there’s the modern classics that eternally appeal to those chasing the high of the drive: the Volkswagen Golf R, BMW M2, Honda Civic Type R, Toyota 86, Porsche 911 GT3 and Mazda MX-5 – stand-out models that would break hearts if they ever were reduced to auto only.

In fact, after discontinuing its six-speed manual 911, Porsche was essentially bullied by customers into bringing it back. And, according to Mazda, in 2018, manual transmissions have accounted for 40 per cent of all MX-5 sales, which is designed to be a car that is simply fun to drive. “Manual transmissions give the driver a sense of control and a deeper sense of connection with their car,” says Alastair Doak, Mazda Australia’s marketing director. “So that machine and man work in harmony, just like a horse and rider. At Mazda, we call this idea jinba-ittai – person and horse as one. And for those who love driving, seamless integration between car and driver is the end goal, and the manual transmission is one of the best ways to reach it.” Furthermore, late last year saw the Japanese giant drop a special edition MX-5 RF model, of which there were only 110 brought to Australia, made simply for lovers of the classic car, and, yep, only available in a manual. Moves like this are enough to make you wonder, do these microtrends point to a revolt against autonomy? Is the mindful driving trend en route to arrive so we can regain some control, intimacy and pleasure? Perhaps a shift is on the horizon.