MIND ON THE ROAD

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

ELLE (Australia) - - First Look -

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 it just needs a lit­tle kick.

“THE RE­LA­TION­SHIP BE­TWEEN MA­CHINE AND THE DRIVER IS AN ACT OF PLEA­SURE… IT’S AL­MOST PRI­MAL”

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