These days it is quite difficult to find a standard medium-sized car with manual transmission.
Check through the list of new vehicles available for sale in New Zealand and you will discover that the vast majority of offerings - way past the 90 per cent mark - are automatics.
For example, in the medium sector there is just one Ford, one Honda, one Hyundai and one Toyota on sale with manual. There are no Holdens, no Kias, no Mitsubishis and no Nissans that you can operate using a clutch and a gearstick.
It's all part of a grand worldwide trend away from manual transmissions and towards the superbly efficient new-age automatics that are being fitted to our medium-sized vehicles.
These transmissions really are very good, to the extent that left to their own devices they can achieve average fuel economies unable to be matched by manuals. Not only that, but most can be operated manually anyway either tiptronic-style or via paddles on the steering wheel.
It all means that operating a manual transmission is almost becoming something of a lost art. Just as the requirement to double-declutch disappeared years ago, now the requirement to use a clutch at all looks to be consigned to all but the most specialist performance-oriented motor vehicles.
Is this unfortunate? I don't think so. Frankly, I can't see why any ordinary motorist would want to be bothered with manual, unless he or she enjoys the involvement that comes with being required to operate a clutch and keep revs within a certain range to prevent stalling and to get the best efficiency and economy out of a car.
These days I much prefer to sit back and do the steering, and leave all the gear changing up to the impressive electronic wizardry that is now on board motor vehicles.
With all that as background, it is a little surprising that Mazda New Zealand has chosen to include one manual model in its lineup of the new third- generation Mazda3. This car isn't any entry-level cheapo 2.0-litre model either, but a mid-range 2.5-litre SP25 hatch that retails for $38,395.
Quite obviously Mazda NZ's reasoning behind this car is to satisfy the desires of those who enjoy the more hands-on motoring by offering a single manual vehicle capable of spirited performance.
And it can do that, too. The new Mazda3 is an outstanding car anyway, lighter yet a lot more rigid than before, and with a fine- tuned chassis. Get behind the wheel of the SP25 six-speed manual and it is fun to use its short-throw gearstick to get the best out of the car's high- compression 138 kilowatt 2.5-litre SkyActiv engine that comes from the larger Mazda6.
The car is capable of beating its six-speed automatic equivalent to 100kmh from a standing start, getting there in seven seconds flat compared to 7.8 seconds. It does lose out to the super-efficient auto in the economy stakes though, with its claimed average fuel use of 6.5 L/100km giving way to the auto's 6.0 L/100km.
This was my first drive of the new Mazda3 since its official launch earlier this year, and a week behind the wheel of the SP25 reminded me just how good a vehicle this latest model is. It's a big improvement on the model it replaces in many ways.
Even though it is the same length as the previous model, it is a bigger hatch. That's because it is wider, lower and with a 60mm longer wheelbase, and it has a raked bodyshell styling that gives it a look of substance.
That longer wheelbase has also translated to more room inside. There's a lot more shoulder room, front leg room and rear knee clearance has also been increased, and up front the driver sits behind the steering wheel more in the style of European product rather than the standard Japanese offerings. It's a refreshing difference that underlines the fact the Mazda3, particularly the SP25, is a little more sporting in intent.
Despite the fact the manual SP25 retails for less than $40,000, it has a high level of standard specification including a heads- up display that pops up above the instrument binnacle, and an information screen that sits on top of the dash just like the latest BMWs. There's a rotary controller on the centre console to adjust the info screen for various uses.
At the SP25 level there is plenty of safety specification too, including i-ActivSense safety technologies that include blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert. Once again, all in a vehicle that retails for less than $40,000.
The Mazda3's raked bodyshell is part of a total vehicle package that is significantly lighter than the previous Mazda3, but the hatch is 31 per cent more torsionally rigid. And that translates to a lovely drive. The car feels agile, and its lightweight naturally aspirated SkyActiv-G power plant with its ultra-high 13:1 compression ratio does perform well.
It's got 13 per cent more power and 10 per cent more torque than the engine in the previous SP25, yet thanks to Mazda's SkyActiv technologies the average fuel consumption and exhaust emissions have dropped a massive 30 per cent.
It almost goes without saying that the Mazda3 is one of the outstanding new vehicles to arrive in New Zealand this year. The mid-spec SP25 could be said to be the most appealing of the fleet too, because it offers the 2.5 litres of performance for $2800 more than the top 2.0-litre GSX.
But personally, if I were buying an SP25 I'd pay another $1500 and get an automatic version. Good as the manual is - and it is one of the easiest to use - it simply isn't as good as the excellent six-speed SkyActiv auto.
But at least Mazda is offering choice, and that's just another reason why the Mazda3 selection is so appealing.
- Taranaki Daily News