18th September 2017 | Rob Maetzig
We've just been driving a car with manual transmission.
Yep - manual transmission! Six on the Floor. For the uninitiated (and that includes all those young people with restricted drivers licences that do not allow them to drive cars with manual transmissions anyway), that means the transmission is a six-speeder, and you have to use a clutch and a floor-mounted gearstick to change gear.
At least the gearstick is on the floor. Older motorists will remember when gearsticks were mounted on the steering column that's when they were given neat descriptions such as Three on the Tree - and the really veteran drivers will remember gears with no synchromesh which meant double de-clutching had to be employed to move from one gear to another, especially when changing down.
That's when you had to use the clutch once to move the transmission into neutral, then use the clutch again, and give the engine some revs, so the desired gear could mesh into place. All while the driver was also steering the vehicle.
Modern-day manual transmissions are so much easier to use. All you need to do is push in the clutch and change gear to suit, and the gearstick is springloaded to help ensure the correct gear is selected.
So why would anyone want to own a car with manual?
There are a few good reasons.
Cost is one - manual cars usually cost less to buy than automatics.
A driver can also feel somewhat more involved with a vehicle when gears have to be shifted manually, and vehicle performance can also be superior because gearing can be shorter than with automatic transmissions. And often - but not always - fuel economy can be better because of the different gearing and lower power losses.
Maybe it is the involvement aspect of using a manual that is the primary reason why cars with manual transmissions are still very popular in Europe. But the situation is quite the opposite in the likes of Japan and Korea, which is where most of our vehicles come from, and as a consequence autos dominate the motoring scene in New Zealand.
But the manufacturers do offer a small number of passenger vehicles with manual transmissions - primarily sports cars and little hatchbacks. Mazda is a classic example of this; it offers just three models with manuals. One is the MX-5 convertible and coupe, another is the sporty SP25 version of the Mazda 3 hatch, and the third is the diminutive Mazda2 hatchback.
Actually there are two Mazda2 manuals. One is the entry GLX version that we've just been driving, and the other is a better specified GSX model. In both cases the manual versions are $1750 less expensive than their automatic counterparts.
What all this means is that the GLX manual allows a customer to get into the very good Mazda2 range for a competitive $21,945 which, by the way, is $7750 less than the top Limited version of the car which is powered by the same 1.5-litre engine.
And it's not as if the GLX is bare-bones either. Quite the opposite in fact. Its standard specification includes such things as power folding exterior mirrors, air conditioning, Bluetooth phone connectivity, hill launch assist, and Mazda's advanced smart city brake support which helps lessen or prevent low-speed collisions by automatically applying the brakes. It's also got a reversing camera, with the view illustrated on the rear-view mirror.
Let's go back to the fact this car is a manual. The transmission aboard the Mazda2 is called SkyActiv-MT, and it is part of a suite of SkyActiv technologies Mazda has developed in the interests of improved performance, safety and economy.
The transmission is a little beauty. More compact and a lot lighter than earlier manual transmissions and with a lot less internal friction so fuel economy can be improved, the gearbox is precise and very easy to use. It's also a six-speeder, and when in sixth gear at 100kmh the 1.5-litre engine ticks over at about 2200rpm, which Mazdas says helps achieve an average fuel consumption of 5.2 L/100km.
The engine, which is one of Mazda's SkyActiv-G units, offers 81kW of power and 141Nm of torque which makes it among the most powerful of the superminis available in New Zealand. It's also got i-Stop which helps save fuel by switching off the engine when the car comes to a standstill, it is put out of gear and the clutch disengaged. It starts again when the clutch is depressed.
This has all helped the vehicle remain up there as one of the classiest little hatchbacks on the market. That's even at the entry level end, and even with the manual transmission. Down there it's a fun car - with extra driver involvement on offer via being able to choose the gears yourself.