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Friday, 13 January 2012

Supercar Buyers Are Stupid

See that silver thing? You can't have one any more...
In late November, the Ferrari California was updated with a bit more power and a bit less weight, adding 30bhp and shedding 30kg. That all seems fine, but with the refresh came sad news: The California is no longer available with a manual transmission. While only a tiny fraction of Californias sold came with a clutch pedal, and a manual doesn't necessarily make sense in a more relaxed open-top GT, this now means that no Ferraris at all are available new with a manual gearbox. Earlier last year, Lamborghini waved goodbye to three-pedal motoring as well, when the limited run of 2-Wheel-Drive Gallardo Balbonis finished, saying the replacement would be paddle-shift only. This is a bad thing.

Of course, the new trend for Double-Clutch Transmissions (DCT) allows cars like the Nissan GT-R and the Ferrari 458 Italia to shift in mere milliseconds with no interruption of power at all, and the subsequent ability to accelerate like a tube train (only faster) is all very exciting, as I found out in the GT-R. Flicking it into Auto mode also allows for better fuel economy, we're told. But there's one thing missing from flappy-paddle gearboxes: driver involvement. I've also driven a Lamborghini MurciƩlago, an early 6.2 with a manual gearbox. Like the picture above, that had an open shift gate, where instead of a synthetic leather "boot", you just get a metal stick with a ball on the end and a metal plate to show you where to put it. When I pressed the awkward clutch (all the controls are awkward in a big Lamborghini) and went from 3rd to 4th on a straight, the metallic click-clack sounded like a rifle bolt, and it felt very satisfying to use. My own car (like the vast majority of small cars in the UK) is also a manual, and I have next to no experience with one-footed motoring. I'm fine with that. I hope that's true for decades to come.

However, I think there's a different reason from milliseconds and MPGs for supercars swallowing their gear sticks so you can't find them. It's not a good reason, either. It's because a lot of people who buy supercars are lazy. A lot of people who buy supercars are poseurs. "Ooh, it's like an F1 car, innit". It's not though, it's a road car. Always will be. I can understand the purpose of a DCT (or Lamborghini's Independent Shift Rod (ISR) system that smooths out a lighter single-clutch system) on a race track, because it's faster, it gives you less to think about and it's easier to be more consistent, particularly on a drag strip, but most supercar owners don't go to a race track, and on the road having a manual gearbox is just better. You have more control, you feel more involved and it heightens the driving experience that extra little bit. There's something so pure about it compared to a paddle/button-shift semi-auto...

That doesn't matter to people like this guy, though, leaning down and using his soft, un-worked hands to grab onto the first Aventador in his country of Saudi Arabia. His grandfather is valued at $1.2bn, although who's in the grandfather-buying business, I don't know. Either way, that means he can have any car he wants, and indeed he does. Bugatti, Koenigsegg, Porsche, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, it's all there in the highest spec possible. He is 22 and has never worked a day in his life. I can feel you hating him already (to make it worse, he exists). I do too. He doesn't go looking for twisting country lanes, because there aren't any. He lives in a desert full of shiny things sitting on flat sand. There's only one race track in Saudi Arabia (that I've found on the internet), and I bet he's never taken it here. He'll just run around at 30mph and pose at the lights, occasionally poking the throttle to please YouTube. People such as him, and people with enough fake tan to resemble him, are the ones who buy supercars like this. They want luxury, not a thrilling drive. As a result, more than 90% of most "prestige cars" are sold with non-manual transmissions, and they are slowly being rubbed out.

It may sound like puristic moaning, and in many cases when you find rants about this subject on the intertubes, it is indeed MGB owners with pipes and beards who probably also hate ABS and fuel injection. But it is sad that the driver is being yet further removed from the driving experience. I can't help but think that while I was happy clicking the shift paddles on the GT-R (which have a satisfying sturdiness to them that means they don't feel plasticky) out on the TopGear-style airfield track, if I were to be lucky enough to buy one and drive it everyday, it would feel like something's missing, and then I would feel sad. I'm not going to say that Nissan should've given the R35 a third pedal though - while the Skylines of old had one, a DCT fits the new GT-R's character a lot better in my opinion, as it's a technological tour de force and interrupting all that computer wizardry with a manual shift wouldn't be quite the same, and would remove the surging, train-like acceleration - but the problem is that the Lamborghini you see above is built like a GT-R, and so will the Gallardo replacement be as well. Lamborghinis shouldn't be designed to be like GT-Rs, they should be designed like Lamborghinis. They should be fierce and scary and, arguably, a bit awkward to use like the MurciƩlago. Ferrucio founded the car company to show Enzo how it was done, not Kazutoshi Mizuno (against whom I have nothing).

Would you like some car with your overhang?
And so we come back to Ferrari. I love the 458 Italia. I love its looks. I love its raw sound from the 4.5-litre V8 that gave it its numeral name. I love how fast it goes and how well it handles in video games. Deep down though, because I'm a child of the '90s, I want an F355, ideally either a GTS in Giallo Modena (pictured) or a Rosso Corsa-painted Berlinetta like everyone else wants, and without the clumsy, slow-witted F1 transmission (the first paddle-shift 'box in a road car, essentially a robotised manual transmission). It's just so pretty! Every body panel has 'pretty' written on it somewhere in invisible ink that only your brain and not your eyes can see. Aside from the slightly excessive front overhang (which is caused by them pushing the front axle as far back as possible to add agility, something the Aventador does too), I would even go as far as to say it looks perfect. It still sounds great, it apparently was as close to perfect on the move as it is standing still, and after the lacklustre 348, it brought back the passionate, non-crap Ferrari we know and love today, and knew and loved in the '60s and '70s, when they were making 250 GTs and Daytonas. One could also argue that since the 355 left us in 1999, there wasn't another truly beautiful Ferrari until the 458 came along in 2010. Sure, its 380 horsepower is made embarrassing by the Italia's 562bhp, and is bettered these days by an Audi saloon, but as Chris Harris points out, fun is more important than speed in the real world. Getting back to the point though, it came with the same shimmering symbol of all that is good as the one you can see sitting proudly inside a 550 Maranello atop this rant. It looks good, it feels and sounds good to use, but most of all it's a symbol of petrol-headedness. Man and machine working together to provide thrills in a way impossible to provide using methods other than motoring. It's a driver's tool.

I leave you with this remark from Mr. Richard Hammond, from a little-known car show we have in the UK called TopGear (you may have heard of it): "The manual gearbox [in the Lamborghini Gallardo Balboni] feels like I'm shaking hands with an old friend."

You can't shake hands with a button.

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