These days in the automotive industry, the overall mindset is efficiency. Be it increasing volumetric efficiency of the internal combustion engine through turbocharging, building a lightweight chassis using alloys and exotic materials, or using carbon fiber and aluminum body panels, the automotive industry has made incredible strides in efficiency using these methods. In most cases this allows for better fuel efficiency, acceleration, handling, and braking. According to the EPA’s data on manufacturers’ average fleet fuel economy, the industry as a whole has seen fuel economy increase from 19.3 mpg in 2004 to 24.3 in 2014. Despite the advancements, increasingly stringent fuel economy standards are forcing automakers and engineers to make decisions that their enthusiast side might not necessarily agree with. For example, the idea of electrically assisted steering is that without a hydraulically assisted power steering rack running off the engine’s accessory belt, an electric motor will provide power steering without robbing engine power. This is great in theory, until you experience it firsthand. The result is uncommunicative steering that is numb and feels more like a video game controller, and less like a mechanical connection with the road. Some automakers have gone further, instead using steer-by-wire, which forgoes a mechanical connection altogether by replacing the steering rack with an electric motor that turns the front wheels according to signals it receives from a sensor that monitors the steering wheel’s position. The Infiniti Q50 was the first car to debut with this technology, and although the car does have a backup mechanical steering rack that physically connects in emergencies, the technology has received much criticism by automotive journalists for its lifeless steering.
Perhaps the biggest blow to the enthusiast community is the declining production of the manual transmission. There are many reasons for this, most of which relate to improving fuel efficiency. It used to be the case that manual transmissions produce better fuel economy than their automatic counterparts under the same driving conditions. This was due to the physical connection between the transmission and engine; there was a lot more energy lost through fluid couplings and multiple clutch packs in automatic transmissions. That has changed in recent years with newer, more efficient automatic transmission designs that offer better fuel economy. However, an automatic transmission will never provide the mechanical feel of the manual transmission, be it a conventional automatic or a dual clutch automated manual. This connected feeling comes from moving the gear shifter, a mechanically linked part of the transmission in your palm that gives the driver the ability to select a gear that they themselves choose, not a computer. This is in conjunction with a foot-activated lever that mechanically engages and disengages the clutch, without which there would be no way to blend the power coming from the engine with the transmission gear you just selected. Although initially intimidating for today’s generation, it can be a rewarding skill to master and improve concentration when driving.
Looking at the future of cars, it’s hard for today’s car enthusiasts to remain optimistic.
Efficiency is the way forward, and although no one fuel economy enhancement improves efficiency drastically, it all combines to produce a noticeable improvement like we have seen in the past decade. There is some hope for enthusiasts though, and that is the incredible choices of cars we can buy and enjoy today before stricter fuel economy standards swallow them. Today, we have cars like the Dodge Viper and its insane 8.4 liter naturally aspirated V10 engine and its 6 speed manual transmission to handle all 645 horsepower. Chevrolet still offers its once ubiquitous but loved small block overhead valve V8 on its Corvette and Camaro models. Porsche’s Cayman GT4 is a ludicrous track monster that takes the 3.8 liter flat six from the 911 Carrera S and mates it with a 6 speed manual as its only transmission option. The Alfa Romeo 4C ditches power assisted steering altogether in search for driver involvement. These cars prove that while the industry as a whole is moving towards automation and efficiency, some automakers and their engineers are making sure these beloved machines don’t leave us without a proper farewell.