For decades, enthusiasts preferred the manual transmission. You can’t blame us. An automatic held back a sports car the way wet concrete would a Kentucky Derby winner.
That’s no longer the case. A good dual-clutch or conventional auto shifts quicker than we can think. So why do so many of us prefer a stick today? We commandeered two Acura NSXes—the iconic original and its tech-laden successor—to figure it out. The shifter in the 1991 NSX feels absolutely perfect. I’ve never enjoyed shifting more. Moving the lever sends a tactile echo up the ideally sized shifter into my hand and forearm. It’s precise but easy. Light but hardly flimsy.
This story originally appeared in Volume 6 of Road & Track.
Acura’s 270-hp 3.0-liter V-6 howls the 3000-pound coupe around the canyons outside Malibu. VTEC is present, but less noticeable than in later Hondas. Peak power is up high, but tall gearing prevents you from spending much time near the 8000-rpm redline. Shame, because Honda’s engine can do it over and over again.
The cabin feels like a billion hours were spent on ergonomics. Only a bus has better forward visibility. Functional? Extremely. Glamorous? No. Look inside a Nineties Accord and you’ll recognize the buttons. The plain black gauges are a missed opportunity to remind you that you’re driving something special.
But it’s rewarding to drive, regardless of speed. The unassisted steering is so light on-center I mistook it for sloppy, but every millimeter of steering angle changes the car’s trajectory. Turn into a corner and you feel the body lean a few degrees before it takes a set. Midcorner bumps are given the attention of water flowing around a pebble. There’s no Sport mode or brake-vectoring wizardry. I earned every downshift, apex, and tidy exit. It never felt like I was driving an Accord.
Aside from the sound, the NSX feels just as special and exotic as its Italian contemporary, the Ferrari 348. It deserves every accolade. The NSX is as thrilling to drive as it is important to the evolution of the automobile. I climbed out smiling, feeling the last hundred-or-so turns in my shoulders, and slipped into the bright yellow successor.
In 1997, Ferrari offered the F355 with an F1 style paddle-shift gearbox, a new innovation that saw the clutch operated by a computer instead of a foot. Other companies followed soon after. But those units had a single clutch, which kicked hard enough to move your hairline back. The manual remained king.
The dual-clutch transmission changed that. A good one switches gears faster than you can read the word “shift” without upsetting the car. Customers loved them. In 2019, 85 percent of BMW M3s were dual-clutch. Want a C8 Corvette with more than two pedals? Strap a bike to the roof.
The 2021 NSX’s nine-speed dual-clutch is an excellent example of the duality of this technology. In automatic mode it shifts smoothly, working with the electric motors, exceptionally comfortable seats, and adaptive suspension to deliver one of the most sublime supercar commuting experiences.
Turn the drive selector to Sport Plus and the character completely changes. The 500-hp twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 behind you is more alert and eager. Sandwiched between the engine and transmission is an electric motor that provides “torque fill” while turbo boost builds. Each front wheel also has its own electric motor that aids in acceleration, torque vectoring, and regenerative braking. All in, you get 573 hp to fling you to 60 in 3.1 seconds on a wave of turbo whistle and intake anger. The hybrid systems in the Ferrari SF90 and Porsche 918 Spyder are not too different, but those cars cost between five and 10 times what the Acura does. The old car’s numbers seem adorable.
Few cars corner with the ease and speed of this NSX. Turn the slightly square wheel and the nose follows, almost imperceptibly guided by the electric motors. There’s a concert of computing happening around you, but all I sense is crazy, accessible speed. The seats need more thigh bolstering, and I didn’t like the muted feedback from the brake-by-wire system, but the agility and accuracy of the nose commands respect.
Both cars were exciting to drive, but I enjoyed the 1991 more: shifting, rev-matching, all the things that give us pride. Why?
I had a theory: nerve endings. You have 17,000 mechanoreceptors in each hand, mostly in your fingertips, able to detect objects as small as an eyelash. The soles of your feet have 200,000 nerve endings, which help with balance or signal that the fuzzy thing under your arch is the tail of your cat.
A car with three pedals involves all four limbs at once; paddles only require three. More limbs, more nerve endings being stimulated, more dopamine, more driving pleasure. Right?
Dr. Loretta Breuning, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and author of several books about the brain’s pleasure systems, disagreed.
“If it were just what you said, then everybody would feel it,” Dr. Breuning said. “But it’s only certain enthusiasts . . . The reason is our happy chemicals turn on when we do something that turned them on in the past. So, everyone that loves to drive old cars today had an early experience of loving to drive old cars.”
If using more limbs led to more pleasure, then everyone—not just gearheads—would prefer driving a manual transmission. Market data disproves that. Instead, it’s all about what you experienced in your formative years, particularly from childhood through adolescence.
Those early connections are strong thanks to neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to learn. That’s how we pick up new skills, store memories, and recover after a traumatic brain injury. Connections made through hands-on experience are the strongest.
Early experiences have an even stronger effect because of myelin, a chemical that coats your neurons and makes them more efficient. It’s like giving your brain fiber-optic internet. Dr. Breuning explains this in her book 14 Days to Sustainable Happiness. “When you let electricity flow into a pathway you myelinated in youth, things make sense instantly. We have a lot of myelin before age eight and during puberty, so your repeated experiences in those years built the core neural networks that you have today.”
Neural connections tell our brains when to release one of four primary chemicals: dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter; oxytocin, the “love hormone”; serotonin, involved with our sense of status; and endorphins, our built-in pain relievers. Our hobbies can give us powerful doses of neurotransmitters: Dopamine can be activated by food, sex, or collecting. Oxytocin creates that happy feeling you get from being with your kids, friends, or car club. The first time someone let you sit in their cool car, or drive it, you got a flood of serotonin.
These chemicals influence almost everything about us, including the cars we like.
Over a 45-minute phone call with Dr. Breuning, I saw the building blocks of my automotive affinities laid out like an electrical schematic. When I was five, my dad let me shift his International Scout while he drove, which made me feel important—serotonin. At 15, I joined a muscle-car club, making me feel welcomed—oxytocin. Cars became my primary hobby as my cerebral wires made new adolescent connections. My discussion with Dr. Breuning changed how I look at the enthusiast community and the groups within it. Mammalian behavior explains silly rivalries—Ford vs. Chevy, imports vs. domestics. We like what our tribes like. Think back to your childhood and I bet you’ll recall experiences that shaped your tastes today.
We subconsciously judge cars using criteria that set into our gray matter not long after we learned that ice cream is delicious and electrical sockets hate fingers.
As for the NSXes, they’re both great and flawed. No matter the generation, you sit too high in a cockpit full of shared parts. The old NSX is loud on the highway, and the new one is as dull on the inside as it is stunning on the outside. The original was a Ferrari that worked; the new one is the only hybrid supercar under $500,000.
Which is better? Ask your lizard brain.
1991 Acura NSX
$60,000 (base when new)
270 hp/210 lb-ft
2021 Acura NSX
3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6, 3 electric motors
573 hp/476 lb-ft
9-speed dual-clutch automatic
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