Where’s the Stick Shift Gone?

It’s time to revisit a popular topic around here – the old “manual vs. automatic” argument.

If you follow – well, actually, let’s just be honest here and say “obsess” – over cars, you might have noticed a trend in regards to what transmissions are available on new cars these days. And that trend is that traditional, “proper” manual transmissions are increasingly rare – especially in bigger, sportier cars. (Think: BMW, Audi, etc.)

(Just to be clear, I’m not going to talk about “luxury” cars here – those have almost always been exclusively automatic, and with good reason, so let’s just cut them out of the discussion for now, OK?)

What seems to be replacing our beloved manual transmission these days is something that the folks on Top Gear call a “flappy-paddle gearbox.” You’ve probably seen them in car ads by now – those little, well, “flappy” paddles on the steering wheel (or the steering column, if the car is badly designed) that change gears for you. Once only exclusively found on super-expensive “supercars,” you can now find them on things like the Mitsubishi Lancer (or the new Outlander – alas!).

I have mixed feelings about these sorts of transmissions – not the least of which is because the presence of the paddles says absolutely nothing about what type of transmission is really “under the hood.” And that seems kind of… gimmicky to me.

It is worth noting that paddle shifters originally came from the world of high-speed racing – when you’re going 300 MPH and the next driver is 3 inches from your bumper, taking your hand off the wheel to shift can be… problematic. When you’re shifting gears while trying to find a parking space at your local shopping mall it’s… less so. (I’ve heard that paddle shifters, although arguably cool and good for racing on a track, are less than optimal for “around-town” type driving – and can in fact be quite infuriating in those instances!)

To further muddle things, paddle shifters might be connected to a normal automatic gearbox, and might function the same way as the “manu-matic” or “sport-tronic” transmissions that were so popular for a time. The only difference is that instead of shifting the gear lever into a little “gate” and pushing it up or down to change gears, you do it instead with the little paddles on the steering wheel.

On the other hand, those paddle shifters might be connected to a very crazy thing sometimes called a “clutchless manual transmission.” This is almost exactly what it sounds like – a manual transmission that just doesn’t have a clutch… or, well, a clutch pedal, anyway. Internally there is (usually) still a real clutch, which is controlled by the car’s computer, but otherwise it functions just like a normal manual transmission (in theory, anyway).

As you’d expect, these fancy transmissions are (generally) only found on very expensive cars. They may very well be “the way of the future, ” but I don’t think they’re here yet, and I don’t think they will be for some time. These sorts of systems are quite complex, which of course is just a fancy way of saying they have lots of ways to break down. And aside from fact that the car’s computer is capable of shifting gears much faster and very much more consistently, there’s really no advantage to it. I mean, if you’re going to have all that mechanical, technical, and electronic hoo-ha, why not just… get an automatic? Or, better still, just get a traditional manual?

Perhaps it’s because many cars with these sorts of systems are – well, let’s be honest, quite expensive, or at least more “status symbol” than “mode of transportation.” Rather than being for practical purposes, these fancy new transmissions are really just there for show, or at least so that the 60-year old retired CEO or whatever who’s driving the car (with the arthritic leg) can still drive like an idiot (and talk on his – or her, to be fair – cell phone, no doubt) in a $100,000+ car without having to dilly-dally with all the bother of actually controlling the gear change in the car. Because that would be too much like… “driving.” But I digress.

Automatic transmissions are getting much better these days – but until there is a deep, fundamental change in the method that automatic transmissions use to change gear ratios for the car’s drive train, they are still going to have the same fundamental drawbacks (more or less) – sluggish gear changes, less efficiency, and greater costs. Obviously, some automatic transmissions will be better than others on any of these things, but they’ll all suffer them, to a greater or lesser degree.

There is one bright ray of hope, however! With gasoline prices going up like they are, smaller cars – especially fuel-efficient 4-cylinder cars – are becoming quite popular again. And there’s no doubt about it – a manual transmission allows you to make the best use of a smaller, weaker engine. So there’s some good news. Of course, on the other hand, for ultimate fuel efficiency, car makers are turning more and more to something called CVT – that’s Continously Variable Transmission, in case you were wondering. This is actually a really exciting technology – no more gears, just a continous, practically “infinite” range of drive ratios, automatically selectable without any disconnection of the car’s drive train. (The Wikipedia article I’ve linked to is particularly instructive.)

The downside, of course, is that current technology limits the amount of power (torque, in particular) that can be sent through a CVT – making it generally only acceptable for smaller, lower-power cars. And lots of people find the lack of “lurch” – as in when the gears change (automatic or manual) – disconcerning, so some manufacturers actually take steps to make the car still “lurch” preceptively at intervals. Weird, I know. But of course as in all things, technology will improve – so maybe in the future we’ll all be driving cars with CVTs? (Assuming we’re not driving “flying” cars… I’m waiting for that day, but I won’t hold my breath.)

So what’s a tripedalist to do? Well, I think it is safe to say that the stick shift will never completely dissapear – after all, there will always be a place for a simple, efficient, manual transmission in cars of many different types (sports cars, small cars, and certain types of big trucks). But things like “flappy paddle” shifters are more likely to show up – and to be the only available option – on more and more cars. So the best thing we can do is vote with our wallets – if you like driving a stick shift (and why wouldn’t you?), buy a stick shift, even if it’s not quite the car you’d like. (Or use your own discretion – after all, you’re the one driving it!)

If you’re one of those people who’s not lamenting the gradual dissapearance of the stick shift in today’s cars, well, I guess you can break out the cake and celebrate. If a car to you is just a “thing” to get you from point A to point B, where there’s a lot of traffic in between (or long stretches of open highway with no curves/stops), all I can say is… enjoy your automatic.

As for me – I’ll be driving stick, and I’ll be quite happy with it, thank you very much! Long live the stick shift!

3 Responses

  1. Lisa Harper September 2, 2008 / 11:29 am

    Manual transmissions simply frighten me. It’s bad enough having to deal with bad drivers on the road, but given the fact I had 3 people give up on trying to teach me how over 20 years ago, says something for my confidence in being able to tackle this beast. I simply won’t go there. I’ll continue to drive my automatic and question why would anyone want to drive anything but?

  2. Keithius September 2, 2008 / 1:14 pm

    If you read the comments on my other article, Manual vs Automatic, I think you’ll see plenty of reasons why people would want to drive a manual instead of an automatic.

    A manual transmission may not be for everyone, but it definitely has its place.

  3. JK Sauceda September 25, 2008 / 12:43 pm

    Thanks for the articles. I have been waiting almost 3 weeks for a manual Accord to arrive at the dealership. It has been delayed by Ike but I will wait even though my other car died a few weeks ago.

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