Aston Martin Remembers the Thrill of the Stick Shift
There’s something wildly desirable about the 2020 Aston Martin Vantage AMR. It’s not the voluptuous-yet-elegant design; that’s standard issue for nearly any Aston Martin. It’s not the power, though the Mercedes-AMG-sourced engine delivers 503 horses, enough to hustle this British two-seater to a heady 205-mph top speed.
No, what’s so exotic and unusual, the part that gets me almost schoolboy-excited as I approach the Vantage AMR for a test drive in Germany, is the manual transmission lever poking from its Alcantara-clad center console. You heard that right: An honest-to-God stick shift. It’s the type of transmission that seems headed toward extinction in new cars, despite the lingering insistence among old-school enthusiasts that a stick is an essential element of driving fun and engagement.
Count me among them, though I’ve been forced to make peace with automatics, largely because I have no choice. The all-new, mid-engine Corvette C8 has dropped its available manual for the first time in the car’s 66-year history. Ferrari and Lamborghini killed off manual transmissions years ago in favor of the paddle-shifted, dual-clutch automatics that the industry first developed for racing. Porsche seems on a similar path: When the company deigned to build 991 copies of the 911R in 2016—basically their GT3 RS track car but with the manual transmission you can’t have in a standard 911—enthusiasts’ brains seemed to explode in unison. That may explain why some forked over $500,000 for used versions of that $186,000 unicorn.
From the humblest econoboxes to seven-figure hypercars, automakers insist that not enough customers want manuals to make them viable and profitable. In 1980, one in three cars sold in America had a stick. Today, it’s barely one in 100, though I’ll argue that lack of supply, not merely lack of demand, is partly to blame.
I will grudgingly agree with automakers on another point: Modern cars are objectively faster (and more fuel-efficient) with automatic transmissions, including those slick dual-clutch affairs that change gears in as little as 100 milliseconds, quicker than any Formula 1 driver can match. The Aston Vantage, even with its more conventional, optional eight-speed automatic, zaps from 0 to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, versus 3.9 seconds with the stick. Ferrari is among brands that are networking automatic gearboxes into their dizzying matrix of systems—including steering, stability, engine and braking controls—and controlling them via a big digital brain. Those networked systems are becoming more critical as automakers integrate autonomous-driving functions and electric powertrains. A manual transmission, automakers say, would be either out of that digital loop or too expensive to wire in merely to satisfy a handful of stubborn holdouts.
But you know what? Whether I’m cruising along the ocean, rocking a mountain road or even testing cars on track, I’m not going by a stopwatch. I don’t usually care if I’m losing a few tenths of a second, because the stick-shift car is still more fun.
“Fun” of the giddy variety definitely describes this Vantage AMR; even if its seven-speed, rev-matching Graziano gearbox features a weird “dogleg” arrangement that’s even rarer than manuals themselves. But once one gets accustomed to even-numbered gears being “up” and odd-numbered gears “down”—the opposite of the typical H-pattern shift layout—driving the Aston is like rediscovering a beloved, classic movie that you’d nearly forgotten. The shift-lever action is meaty and analog, the clutch take-up nearly perfect. Scorching the misty green countryside of the Rhineland-Palatinate, I find myself braking late into corners and gunning out the other side, egged on by the manual’s sense of hardwired control over the Aston, and its beastly, twin-turbo Mercedes V-8. DIY shifting aside, it helps that the Vantage AMR is a supremely entertaining sports car. This lightened, stiffened version of the standard Vantage weighs a svelte 3,298 pounds, including standard carbon-ceramic brakes. The manual transmission and limited-slip differential alone trim 154 pounds.
Detouring onto the Autobahn, I wait for clear sailing in the fast lane. Then I romp my way to seventh gear and an indicated 300 kph, or 186 mph. Even at that breakneck pace, the Aston feels reassuringly planted and in total control.
Returning to Aston Martin’s AMR racing headquarters, in the shadow of the famed Nürburgring circuit, I can catch my breath and remind myself of one downside: Aston will build just 200 copies of the 2020 Vantage AMR, priced from $183,081. Is this the Porsche 911R redux, a car that only a few fortunate souls will ever encounter? Not at all: Next year, Aston will offer the identical manual gearbox as an option on all Vantage models.
By everyday consumer standards, the Vantage will remain surpassingly rare. But Aston is at least doing its part to keep the stick-shift dream alive.