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How to Manual Mode shift

My brother was peeking into my weekly test car, a Scion FR-S, and saw the two pedals and automatic shifter. His excited anticipation was quickly replaced with a curled-up lip, as if the thing had a pink shag interior.

“It’s actually really, really fun for an automatic,” I offered. “And you can get a 6-speed stick.”

“Meh.”

In most countries, automatics are reserved for handicapped people and the elderly. In Canada, almost every car sold has one. No wonder enthusiasts (myself included) love to hate automatics.

However, the automatic doesn’t actually ruin the sporty experience of the new Scion FR-S. It’s not a watered-down, less-credible machine for having it. It’s still fun to drive.

2012 BMW Z4
Photo: Sébastien DA'mour

No, I haven’t relinquished my man-card, and I’d still rather shift myself. But a few automatic testers in recent memory (this one included) managed to entertain my inner driving enthusiast without that all-important third pedal.

The guts of the FR-S’ transmission are those of a “normal” 6-speed unit. Lever and paddle-actuated manual shifting is possible. However, unlike so many automatics shifted manually, this one does a great job.

Rev-matching is perfect in both directions. Response to the driver’s commands is virtually instant. Ditto for the shifts themselves. Cool sound effects ensue, too. There’s even an LED shift-light warning that comes on past 7,000 rpm. The FR-S’ automatic is about as responsive, snappy, entertaining and instant as automatics come.

Other machines that pull off a very satisfying manual-mode experience with their automatics? The Subaru Legacy 3.6R, BMW 3 Series, Infiniti G, and Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 come to mind.

However, not all manual modes are created equal. Many included with automatic/DSG/dual-clutch/SST/whatever transmissions aren’t even worth using.

Take the Volvo S60, for instance: It’s got a 6-speed automatic, but call for a shift from the manual gate and you’ll wait the better part of a second before a lazy and non rev-matched gearshift takes place. Possibly in the interest of refinement, the computer denies driver-requested downshifts that would result in high revs, too.

Manual shifting is about instantaneousness control and cool downshift noises -- not waiting for a computer to validate your request. Other manual modes that aren’t worth using include those in the Dodge Charger, Mazda3 and Lexus IS 350 AWD.

Want the best manual-mode experience possible? Check out the BMW M3. With the dual-clutch transmission dialed into its hardest shift setting, a click on the upshift paddle at full throttle out of first results, instantly, in a lurch forward, a positive “WHAM” through the driveline, and about 10 feet of rubber left on the road. The Porsche 911 Carrera S is in the same ballpark.

If you’re not rich, anything with a DSG transmission from Volkswagen is nearly as much fun if (for whatever reason), you can’t get the manual box.

But, back to the Scion. I’d order mine with a manual, in black. However, I’m happy knowing that if I needed (for whatever reason) to order my FR-S with an automatic, I’d still have fun.