Celebrating The Manual Gearbox At Honda’s “Shifting Gears” Event

It’s no big secret that in recent years the manual transmission has become an endangered species in the automotive world. Aside from a few enthusiast-focused outliers in the industry, the take rate for three-pedal gearboxes is simply dwarfed by its automatic counterparts.

While convenience, accessibility, and ease of use have all played a role in the manual transmission’s decline, recent advances in automatic and dual-clutch gearbox design have made these sophisticated transmissions faster and more efficient than any stick-shift could ever hope to be. And it’s for all those reasons that you won’t find a manual transmission on the options sheet of any new Ferrari, Lamborghini, or McLaren.

Yet the manual transmission still perseveres. Why, you might ask? Although automated gearboxes might deliver faster straight-line sprints and quicker lap times, the operation of the clutch pedal and shifter provides a level of physical involvement that automatics simply cannot replicate. And it’s that constant, direct connection with the car’s drivetrain that keeps enthusiasts coming back for more.

We came across this N600 on display at the event. Introduced in 1970, the N600 was Honda's first vehicle to be offered in the United States. Although it only produced 45 horsepower, its 600cc motor could rev to 9,000 rpm.

Since the company’s first automobiles started rolling out of the factory back in 1963, Honda has continued to offer three-pedal options across their lineup, and for good reason. “We like to think that Honda has the best manual transmissions in the industry,” said Honda’s Carl Pulley. “The shifters are incredibly gratifying to use, and the clutch engagement points are spot-on.”

To celebrate Honda’s continued support of the manual transmission, they invited us to come out to Angeles National Forest, just north-east of downtown LA, to get some seat time in the company’s three-pedal models, both new and old, and provide training for any manual-gearbox rookies who wanted to join in on the fun. “We want everyone to be able to enjoy the engaging experience of driving a manual transmission,” Pulley added.

Driver Education

While manual gearbox veterans were welcome to hit the twisting tarmac of Angeles Crest Highway right away, those new to the three-pedal game would need to get some instruction before heading out on their own. To that end, we brought along a manual transmission rookie and rode along with her and the instructor to get a look at how Honda’s training program works.

“There are four different segments you’ll run through,” explained Honda’s David Wandless. “We’ll start by getting familiar with the clutch pedal before moving up to shifting through Second and Third gears, using Reverse, and eventually heading out on the road.”

Honda provided a manual transmission simulator so the trainees could keep their skills sharp in between training sessions.

To give the students a primer before hopping behind the wheel, Honda’s Zack Vlasuk demonstrated some of the fundamental elements of gearbox operation to help students better understand how the clutch, throttle, and shifter all work together to get the vehicle moving. “Instead of just explaining how to drive a stick shift, I’m also going to explain why you’re doing it,” he noted.

Vlasuk began by showing the layout of the gearbox’s shift pattern, rowing through the gears from First to Sixth as well as Reverse. From here we move on to the clutch, where Vlasuk explains the clutch’s function as means of coupling and de-coupling the engine to the transmission, along with the ever-important “bite point” — the spot in the clutch pedal’s travel upward where it begins to make contact with the engine. “We’re going to begin by releasing the clutch pedal slowly and feeding in power as the clutch begins to slip into its linkage with the engine.”

Honda’s David Wandless explains the rules of the road before the training session moves out to the tarmac with individual instructors.

As any well-versed manual transmission driver can attest, this operation is undoubtedly the most difficult skill for newcomers to master, so after Vlasuk went through the fundamentals, students spent some time getting acclimated behind the wheel.

While operating a manual transmission can seem a bit overwhelming for the uninitiated, Honda instructor Keith Buglewicz points out that stick shifts are easier to handle than they’ve ever been before. “You can just let out the clutch slowly and the car will begin to roll on its own without any throttle input at all,” Buglewicz pointed out. “You can thank modern fuel management systems for that – with a 10-year-old car, it would likely just stall on you.”

Our trainee had a bit of previous experience driving a manual transmission, so after a refresher course and some time proving her competency operating the clutch and shifter, we were out on the road mixing it up with the rest of the daily traffic. This is the true test of one’s grace under fire when it comes to using a manual transmission.

After acclimating to the clutch’s engagement point and adding some throttle to the mix, instruction moved on to shifting through the gears. With a bit of previous experience under her belt, the trainee we brought along proved to be a star pupil, so it wasn’t long before we were out on public streets in traffic.

“I’ve had a couple informal lessons with a manual transmission in the past, but they never really ‘stuck’ with me,” explained Nicole, our stick-shift trainee. “Every time I’d get into the driver’s seat again, I’d feel like I was starting from square one. The training course that Honda set up really helped me to gain that muscle memory required to feel comfortable driving a manual transmission. They also explained the mechanics of how the clutch and transmission work, which goes a long way in understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing while driving, and being allowed to drive by myself for a couple hours in their test cars really solidified my confidence in my new skills.”

While getting to the point where driving a manual transmission is second nature takes days, if not weeks of practice, it really only takes a half-hour or so of basic instruction to get the fundamentals down.

You can just let out the clutch slowly and the car will begin to roll on its own without any throttle input at all. You can thank modern fuel management systems for that – with a ten year old car, it would likely just stall on you. -Keith Buglewicz, Honda

With our student now out on her own in a tenth-generation Civic Si, your author was free to get some seat time in a selection of Honda performance models, both past and present, out on one of the best driving roads in the United States.

1999 Civic Si

With an all-aluminum, 160 horsepower 1.6-liter B16A2 four-cylinder engine mated to a slick six-speed manual transmission, the 2,600-pound sixth-generation Civic Si Coupe was a surprisingly stout performer right out of the box, hustling to 60 mph from a standstill in 7.1 seconds.

Though the sixth-generation Civic Si's performance aspirations are kept aesthetically low key, the car has it where it counts. Along with stiffer springs, bigger sway bars, and a strut tower brace for improved cornering, the Si scores disc brakes at all four corners and wider, low-profile tires for additional grip. The sole transmission available with the sixth-generation Si was a five-speed manual.

This Si model and its VTEC powerplant were instrumental players in the tuner craze that sprouted up in the late ’90s, a trend popular enough to warrant the spawning of the Fast and the Furious franchise in 2001.

It’s a sharp little machine, and that B16A2 powerplant sounds lovely winding out past 7,500 rpm. But this ’99 Si also shows how far Honda has come with their performance trims in the years since. Removing the rose-tinted glasses for a moment, we noted the total lack of side bolstering in the seats, the relatively slow steering rack, and the underwhelming brakes. Of course, when one considers where the rest of the industry was in 1999, many of the Si’s shortcomings can be forgiven. Especially when VTEC kicks in, yo!

2008 S2000 CR

It didn’t take more than a few seconds to fall in love with the S2000 CR. Featuring a reworked steering rack, revised suspension and exhaust, and grippier rubber than the standard model, the Club Racer was designed to serve as a sharper, more track-oriented version of the S2000.

Just 200 of the S2000 Club Racers were produced in this Apex Blue Pearl color between 2008 and 2009.

Less than 700 examples of the CR were produced during its two-year production run, and the pristine Apex Blue Pearl model that Honda tossed us the keys to is a fine example of Honda sports car design hitting its stride.

Yellow and black alcantara was the only interior spec available on CR models. Motivation comes from a naturally-aspirated 2.2-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine that churns out 237 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque.

The S2000 took to Angeles Crest Highway like a fish to water, its 237-horsepower, 2.2-liter DOHC engine perfectly paired with the close-ratio six-speed gearbox and its short throws. The CR also sports a collection of wind-tunnel-tested aero pieces, including a rear wing that was designed to reduce overall coefficient of lift by roughly 70 percent.

While we were tempted to make a break for it and take this one home with us, we knew there were more three-pedal adventures to be had with Honda’s latest hardware, too.

2018 Civic Type R

While the latest Civic Type R is Honda’s fifth entry in the Type R catalog, it’s the first time Honda’s hottest Civic has been available to U.S. buyers. Based on the tenth-generation Civic hatchback, the Type R sports a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine that outputs 306 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, an uprated suspension with adjustable dampers, grippy Continental SportContact 6 tires wrapped around lightweight 20-inch alloys, massive Brembo brakes, and a host of other go-fast goodies.

The Civic Type R's rear wing is a functional piece, generating 66 pounds of downforce at 124 mph. That might not sound like a whole lot, but keep in mind that without it, the car would likely be generating lift at that speed instead.

Despite sending all 306 ponies exclusively to the front wheels, the Civic Type R never allows dreaded torque-steer to distract from the fun, thanks to clever front-suspension geometry that was designed specifically to address the issue, along with a sophisticated helical limited-slip differential that modulates torque between the two wheels as needed.

It’s simply an incredibly well dialed-in machine on the whole, satisfying to drive hard while remaining easy to live with on a day-to-day basis (your author also spent a week with one last year). Some credit must be given to the well-tuned dampers, which can be adjusted all the way from garden-variety Civic ride quality in Comfort mode to a near-total absence of roll, squat, and dive in R+ mode.

Given the Type R’s mission, it’s not surprising that Honda chose to make this model in a manual-only affair. It’s a good thing the auto rev-matching manual transmission is a fantastic gearbox then, delivering satisfying shifts and communicative clutch feel, while remaining easy to manage in traffic.

2018 Accord 2.0T Sport

The Accord might seem like a bit of an outlier in this bunch, but hear us out. Let’s start under the hood, where a slightly de-tuned version of the Civic Type R’s turbocharged powerplant lives, here making a healthy 252 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque.

A Civic Type R in disguise as a family sedan? Not quite, but there’s a lot to like about the new Accord 2.0T Sport, due in no small part to hardware that was originally introduced in the Civic Type R. While we’d still like to see the adjustable dampers and rev-matching software from the Type R in this sport-oriented sedan, it’s off to an excellent start as-is, and we wouldn’t be surprised to find that stuff on the spec sheet for the Accord a few years down the road.

But what’s perhaps even more remarkable than the Type R-derived engine is what it’s connected to: A six-speed manual gearbox (a 10-speed automatic is optional). That’s right, you can get a Civic Type R-like powertrain in an Accord. It’s enough to get this unassuming sedan to 60 miles per hour in six seconds flat. With its sport-tuned suspension and a curb weight under 3,300 pounds, the Accord also holds its own when the road gets windy, despite riding on all-season tires from the factory.

In an era when autonomous driving technology is capturing headlines in the automotive realm, this Accord serves as a reminder that Honda hasn’t forgotten about the folks who simply love to drive.

Just before heading home from the event, we noticed a sign with a quote on it from the company’s founder, Soichiro Honda: “The value of life can be measured by how many times your soul has been deeply stirred.” While it’s easy to just dismiss this as a marketing device, there’s a solid body of evidence that points to Honda’s brass taking that sentiment to heart.

With the Accord (and 15 other models) available with a manual transmission across the company’s current lineup, Honda remains in the business of engaging with drivers rather than doing everything they can to remove them from the equation. And that’s definitely something worth celebrating.

About the author

Bradley Iger

Lover of noisy cars, noisy music, and noisy bulldogs, Brad can often be found flogging something expensive along the twisting tarmac of the Angeles Forest.
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