The heel-and-toe downshift — whereby drivers "blip" the gas pedal with the blade of their right foot, revving the engine, while keeping pressure on the brake pedal with the ball of the same foot — is becoming a lost art, a performance-driving shibboleth known to few and practiced by fewer.
Once, all drivers understood heel-and-toe. Manual gearboxes were "unsynchronized" and if you didn't rev-match the gears, you would grind them marvelously. You also had to "double clutch," but that's another story. Heel-and-toe was cultural currency and automotive literacy, the stuff of plot points on the old radio cop drama Calling All Cars. It was to driving what a proper fox trot was to the summer cotillion. Then synchronized manual transmissions became common and automatic transmissions commoner still. Today, only about 15 percent of the license-holding public knows how to drive a manual-transmission car. I would estimate only 1 percent know their heel from their toe.
Within the past decade or so, ultra-performance street cars with Formula One-style sequential gearboxes have dispensed with the foot-operated clutch altogether (Ferrari, I'm looking at you). During downshifts, the car's computers actuate the clutch mechanism in hundredths of a second for perfectly smooth, flawless rev-matching.
And now it's time to say the final maudlin words over heel-and-toe. The 2009 Nissan 370Z is the first car to have a computerized rev-matching system — called, awfully enough, "SynchroRev Match" — in a conventional, H-pattern manual transmission. Gone now is the secret decoder ring of fast driving, the sacred handshake of the Clutch Brotherhood, the Esperanto of in-car footwork. "Sic transit gloria" heel-and-toe.
This is the first major overhaul of the Z car since 2003, and Nissan has moved all the needles in the right directions. The car is shorter (by 4 inches), wider, lower and lighter (by 95 pounds), and more powerful (332 horsepower from the 3.7-liter V-6, up 26 hp from the previous car's 3.5-liter). The base price remains at about $30,000 while the full glam of the leather-lined, alloy-wheeled, Bluetoothed Touring package with Sport options comes in around $36,500.
With its cantilevered roof, whiskered catfish mouth, zircon-like headlamps and roped shoulders, the new Z looks like the old car and the Nissan GT-R have been slammed together.
This is a righteous little sport tourer. And yet, in the long telescope of automotive history, the new Z car would be but a footnote — a capable and conscientious updating of a successful car — but for the rev-matching innovation. Optional with the Sport package, the feature will, I predict, make its way to other manual-gearbox cars, in and outside of Nissan's line. In 10 years, every stick-shift-stirred car will have it.
I grudgingly concede, rev-matching works beautifully. You can be full on the boil in fifth gear coming into a corner, get hard on the big brakes and walk down the gears — fourth, third, second — and before you can release the clutch, the engine soars with rpm as the computer algorithmically ciphers the exact revs to match the gear speed. You can't trick it and you can't beat it to the punch. Release the clutch and the uptake is buttery and slick.
You can switch off the system and practice heel-and-toeing on your own, but you will find the machine executes downshifts better, and you will be left inconsolable with your obsolete skill.
So what? After all, I don't know how to change a tubed tire. And I couldn't get a Model T out of neutral. Techniques change with technology.
It's just that heel-and-toeing makes drivers a part of the drivetrain, adjudicating between the engine and the rear wheels. You feel and appreciate the machinery.
Another sodden blanket of technology has been thrown between me and the road. More enabling of the inept. Progress.
Bah. I wash my heels and toes of it all.
2009 Nissan 370Z (Touring edition)
Base price: $34,000 (est.)
Price, as tested: $36,500 (est.)
Powertrain: 3.7-liter, 24-valve V-6 with variable valve timing and intake geometry; six-speed manual transmission (seven-speed automatic optional); limited slip rear differential; rear-wheel drive.
Horsepower: 332 at 7,000
Torque: 270 pound-feet at 5,200 rpm
Curb weight: 3,278 (manual transmission)
Wheelbase: 100.4 inches
Overall length: 167.1 inches
EPA fuel economy: 18 miles per gallon city, 26 mpg highway
Final thoughts: A hard end for the old soft shoe